Review: A Man Called Otto |

Man Called Otto

A Man Called Otto is an adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s Swedish novel A Man Called Ove, about a man called Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) who’s become disillusioned with the world. 

Otto is a newly retired, recently widowed, grumpy old man. He lives in a neatly manicured neighbourhood in suburban America, and fills his days with highly structured, pedantic routines. From how he eats his breakfast, to how he separates his trash, to how he berates anyone around him for failing to meet his seemingly arbitrary expectations. 

We soon learn that it’s his coping mechanism for dealing with the death of his beloved wife Sonya, and subsequent loss of purpose in his life. Otto then attempts suicide multiple times (and failing haplessly), and in the process we see how he feels he has nothing left to live for. 

Until, that is, his new neighbour Marisol and her family move in across the street which forces him at first to grudgingly accept their presence. As time passes, their interactions coax him out of his self-destructive spiral. Ultimately, Otto reshapes himself into an adoptive grandfather figure – “Abuelo Otto” – to Marisol’s young family. 

Tom Hanks as Otto Anderson

Tom Hanks is known for his classic romcoms, like When Harry met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle, or as the improbable, everyman hero in movies like Castaway(2001), Captain Phillips (2013), and Sully (2016). He’s also had dozens of other standout roles from Forrest Gump, to an emotive portrayal of Mr. Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, to the stoic Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan. He makes any movie better, merely by his presence – just think of Woody’s voice in Toy Story.

It feels like Otto was a role made for him at this exact stage in his career. He’s the right age to effortlessly portray the physical mannerisms of the character. As Otto, he yo-yos between attempted suicides, dark humour, reconnecting with his past, and ultimately reconciling that past with his present.

Marisol is played by acclaimed Mexican actress, Mariana Treviño in her equally compelling, diametrically opposite character (she’s bubbly, effable, and wants to know everybody’s business). It shifts the film from the realm of a darkly comedic buddy film – or a coming-of-(old)-age story – and becomes something more. It’s a story about regret, depression, emotional reawakening, and ultimately, the meaning of life. 

Grumpy old man 

Hanks’s Otto is akin to Clint Eastwood’s award-winning performance in Gran Torino (a movie itself which should have been nominated for an Oscar, but that’s another controversial story altogether). Because while he’s abrasive, angry, and drives away anyone who could possibly care about him, he also cares about the people around him and will fight for them. 

He teaches Marisol how to drive, and has a full-blown road rage incident when someone aggressively honks at her. He also takes in a homeless transgender teen who’s been kicked out by his homophobic father, remarking simply “your father’s an idiot.” 

As an engineer, Otto’s life has always been about purpose. His search for a purpose started when he tried to join the army as a young man, but was rejected due to a hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (a condition where you have an abnormally large heart). One of the movie’s many tension-releasing jokes is that Otto’s problem, ironically, is that his heart is “too big.”

Then he finds the love of his life, Sonya, and tries to start a family, but their unborn child dies in an accident, leaving Sonya paralysed in the prime of her life. This leads to Otto finding purpose in caring for her, until she dies of cancer, leaving him rudderless. 

The movie shows the POV of an elderly, widowed person who feels life has already run its course. It contextualises the real struggle that countless, lonely older people around us everyday likely feel. 

Sonya and Marisol

The movie’s peppered with flashbacks of his youth (young Otto is played by Hank’s son, Truman Hanks), explaining precisely why Otto is the way he is. His wife Sonya’s story, however, is never truly revealed. Sonya’s existence seems merely to facilitate Otto’s transformation – first from hopeful youth in his 20s, to no-nonsense man-on-a-mission, to angry widower, and finally to loveably flawed human being, Abuelo Otto

We only see glimpses of a young Sonya (Rachel Keller) – a literature-loving, self-assured woman – in pivotal moments during Otto’s youth, but there’s no mention of Sonya in her later years. We only hear that she was a teacher that shaped the lives of vulnerable kids, and was a best friend to their neighbour. 

Sonya’s lack of screen time is compensated for by the pivotal role of Marisol. Multiple times in the movie, Otto attempts his own suicide, and each time he’s thwarted by fate and/or Marisol. These scenarios are masterfully de-escalated every time through a mix of dark humour and personal realisations.

On the flip side, Otto’s purpose is to remind Marisol that she’s “…given birth to two babies, immigrated to a new country with nothing, mastered English, earned a degree…”, and by insinuation, a person Otto deeply respects. Their unique, symbiotic relationship is what this whole film portrays, and their emotional journey is adept at pulling at the heartstrings.  

A Man Called Otto is a feel-good film about finding purpose in life, and along the way, shows us how someone can become their better selves by letting the right people in.