Review: Though Hanks’ Best Performance in a Down Year for the Actor, A Man Called Otto Still Feels Phoned In

On paper, this film actually makes sense, even if it might not work out in the end. Actor Tom Hanks and his wife, actor/musician Rita Wilson, were watching the 2015, Oscar-nominated Swedish film A Man Called Ove (based on the novel of the same name by Fredrik Backman), and she decided she wanted to remake it into an American film, with Hanks taking on the lead role of a grumpy old man who spends a great deal of the film attempting suicide. They changed the character’s name to Otto, made a few minor adjustments to the story, and hired director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Magee (Life of Pi). Seven years later, we get A Man Called Otto, which marks the final installment of what might be the worst year in Tom Hanks’ career as an actor (following supporting parts in Elvis and the live-action version of Disney’s Pinocchio).

When you hire Hanks for any role, there are certain expectations, and it’s often fun when an actor with a reputation for playing genuinely nice, or at least sympathetic, characters defies expectations and takes on a less charming and more abrasive character, such as Otto Anderson. Since losing his school teacher wife to cancer not long ago, Otto sees little to live for, certainly not in the cul-de-sac where his house is, and where Otto is the unofficial surveyor of all that goes on. He makes certain everybody who parks on the street belongs there and that everything about the grounds is just so, according to the neighborhood bylaws—I’m sure you know the type (or perhaps you are the type). A local real estate company (represented by an agent played by Mike Birbiglia) has been sniffing around for a while, looking to buy up the whole street, and seems to know a little too much about the medical records of those who live there, using this information to push people out.

Otto is well known on his block but everyone sees him as a full-time curmudgeon and busybody with no real life of his own. But when a younger couple—the pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her goofy husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their two young daughters—moves across the street from Otto, he puts his suicide attempts on hold to help them out because they seem nice and are too preoccupied with their own issues to notice what a grump Otto truly is. And it’s this strained but sweet relationship that serves as the core of anything that works with this movie.

When Otto allows his mind to drift, it takes him to a series of flashbacks that show us the history of his relationship with his eventual wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller). The young Otto is played by Hanks’ real-life son Truman Hanks, and as much as they do an admirable job showing us the softer and more agreeable side of Otto, I still got very little from this fairly traditional love story. We learn that Otto was so devoted to his wife that he never really carved out a life for himself outside of home and his job as an efficiency expert at the factory where he worked—the same place he retires from at the beginning of the movie—which eventually leaves him free to commit suicide…or at least try.

I realize suicide is nothing to laugh about, but Otto’s many failed or thwarted attempts do make for some honest humor in A Man Called Otto. Also slightly amusing are his interactions with a stray cat that seems to follow him everywhere and that he wants nothing to do with, even though it’s pretty clear to the audience that we’re meant to see it as a representation of Sonya looking out for her husband. To be clear, nothing about this movie is subtle, not even in the slightest, and every significant event is telescoped many scenes earlier, just so you aren’t shocked about anything that might happen in the story. The cast is a perfectly blended mix of nationalities, races, gender identities, and ages, and it all feels quite deliberate and manipulative. There are no daring or bold choices made in the screenplay, and even the plot’s darker corners are played for laughs. And wait until you see Hanks pick a fight with a clown working to cheer up kids in a hospital. There’s even a song by Rita Wilson on the soundtrack to really pull together this small corner of hell.

I can at least say A Man Called Otto is Hanks’ best acting work of the year (yes, this counts as a 2022 film), and it sticks close enough to the book/original movie that it doesn’t ruin anything crucial. It just feels like coasting for everyone involved. As grouchy and disagreeable as Otto can be, by the end of the film, he’s the hero of the community, and while that uplifts things considerably, it doesn’t feel entirely honest to anything except Hanks’ reputation. I appreciate any time I get to see Hanks on the big screen, but I hope he finds less annoying ways to stretch his acting legs moving forward.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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