A Man Called Otto
MOVIE | A story with a needed message about love and kindness takes a disappointing detour into political preachiness
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➤ Rated PG-13
➤ S1 / V5 / L5*
Tom Hanks, known as one of Hollywood’s nice guys, gets to unleash his inner grump in A Man Called Otto, directed by Marc Forster. The movie adapts Fredrik Backman’s Swedish novel from 2012, A Man Called Ove (a Swedish adaptation was made in 2015).
Otto Anderson thinks the world is falling apart. The movie begins with Otto shopping in a hardware store, confident that he knows more about the products than the store’s youthful staff. He’s incredulous when they can’t understand he only wants 5 feet of rope rather than 2 yards.
He’s only in his mid-60s, but the company he gave his life to has forced him into retirement. He thinks his neighborhood is going to pot—no one follows the rules clearly printed on street signs. And to make matters worse, a clueless, and irritatingly friendly, Hispanic family has moved in across the street. Otto is surrounded by idiots, or so he believes. But that family across the street will pierce Otto’s crusty exterior with love and kindness.
Columbia Pictures has marketed A Man Called Otto as a heartwarming comedy, but don’t be fooled. The movie has some heartwarming and comedic scenes, but it’s a very sad—and flawed—film.
In the opening scene, Otto is buying rope because he plans to hang himself. His wife Sonya died six months before, and now that he’s lost his job he feels he has nothing to live for. The ceiling mount breaks during his attempted hanging just as the new neighbors pull in with their U-Haul. Otto attempts suicide three more times during the film, and each time he’s interrupted by someone in need. The film attempts to turn these failed attempts at self-murder into jokes, but the undercurrent is too tragic.
As Otto plots his own demise, the film flashes back to his early life with Sonya. (Hanks’ son Truman Hanks plays a much younger Otto in these scenes.) Forster deftly juxtaposes Otto’s despair in the present with the past life he still longs for. The brief transitions between the two lives are the film’s most beautiful moments, but they’re filled with unbearable melancholy.
With the Canadian healthcare service recommending euthanasia for the vulnerable and elderly, the release of A Man Called Otto feels timely. This movie affirms the dignity and value of each human life. Otto repeatedly seeks death because he feels useless and empty: The world has passed him by, and his wife is gone. But he realizes slowly that people still need and love him.
The movie doesn’t suggest Otto’s suicide would be bad because he’s still useful. The inclusion of a comatose neighbor whose wife continues to care for him drives home the point. Death is bad because it robs others of the chance to love us.
The film reminds viewers people aren’t meant to be alone and we owe each other a debt of kindness. The growing relationship between Otto and the young Hispanic family makes up the heart of the movie, but A Man Called Otto loses its focus and its narrative power about halfway through, taking a detour into political preachiness.
First, Otto befriends a teenage transgender neighbor. (In the Swedish version, the neighbor is gay, but now in America being simply gay isn’t cool enough.) Every interaction between these two rings hollow. We’ve spent an hour seeing Otto call everyone he meets an idiot because they don’t understand how the world works, but he immediately accepts this teenager’s gender confusion without protest. Otto’s conversations with the teen don’t make sense in the context and are composed exclusively of LGBT clichés. Then, with the help of his new friends, Otto wages war against the evil capitalists who want to take over his neighborhood. Both the problem and the solution defy belief.
The movie concludes too predictably, trying to elicit a few more tears before the credits roll, but by the end I was merely crying because another promising premise had been ruined by cheap progressive platitudes.
*Ratings from kids-in-mind.com, with quantity of sexual (S), violent (V), and foul language (L) content on a 0-10 scale, with 10 high
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