"A Man Called Otto" touching and bittersweet without being cloying

A Man Called Otto (2022)

“A Man Called Otto” features that narrative trope where a curmudgeon dulls his prickliness and reveals his true nougat heart to his kind-hearted neighbors. Sounds like clichéd, hokey formula, right? Well, one’s cynical side may remain intact and the bullshit meter might sound, but all allergies to earnestness will be retested when Tom Hanks and this wonderful cast are the glue. For a life-affirming, feel-good crowd-pleaser tailored to the sunny talents of Hanks, “A Man Called Otto” is touching, unexpectedly funny, and bittersweet without crossing over into cloying sitcom territory.

Otto Anderson is a grump. Living in a gated Pittsburgh neighborhood of townhomes, he is a stickler for rules and a routine. Each morning is like clockwork, making his rounds and looking for any parking violation or recycling snafu. As a result, he doesn’t get along much with his neighbors. After being forced into retirement from his job, and the wound of losing his wife recently still open, Otto tries ending his life more than a few times. Moving in, just across the street from Otto, is a Spanish-speaking family of new renters: the upbeat and very pregnant Marisol (Mariana Treviño), her husband Tony (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and their two daughters. Maybe this family will help Otto loosen up and eventually lose the proverbial stick up his ass.

“A Man Called Otto” is based on a novel by Fredrik Backman and a 2015 Swedish film, “En Man Som Peter Ove (A Man Named Ove).” This being the Hollywood version, it’s probably safe to say that the bleakness was lightened a bit to be more accessible, but when a movie works, it works. Director Mark Forster (2018’s “Christopher Robin”) and writer David Magee (2022’s “The School for Good and Evil”), however, do not water down the melancholy of the material, which helps level out the initial eccentricities of the neighbors and eventual sentiment. 

Without a pro we take for granted like Tom Hanks, this character—and the film itself—might have evolved in a way that came across as phony, facile, or unearned. Otto is irascible, but charmingly so, because he’s played by Hanks. He finds the truth in a character who could have just remained a simplified type, but his anger is justified and not void of humanity. In flashback, a younger Otto is played by a Tom Hanks dead ringer, who just happens to be Truman Hanks, the star’s son. We see how he was unfit for the military and how his wife, Sonya (played by a lovely Rachel Keller), was truly the love of his life. Besides Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño is absolutely winning as the warm and friendly Marisol, who feels like a full-fledged human being and not just a caricature or a plot point to make Otto a better man. 

Not every film needs to be subtle and/or challenging, nor should we snub our noses or feel superior to films that just want to entertain in ways that don’t feel condescending. One can only really dismiss the film’s transparent emotional manipulations during a key flashback involving a bus crash because of the ill-fitting use of Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” On the other side of the coin, a small act of kindness toward a trans man (Mack Bayda) is handled more gracefully than it could have been. “A Man Called Otto” may overfill itself with too much incident in the third act toward Otto's redemption, but this is sincere, satisfying entertainment. For the end of the year (or the beginning of the new year), it’s difficult to criticize a pleasant surprise that manages to be endearing and empathetic rather than trite. 

Grade: B

Sony Pictures Releasing released “A Man Called Otto” (126 min.) in select theaters on December 30, 2022, followed by a wide release on January 13, 2023.