In my years working retail, I once met a man very much like Otto Anderson. He was sour and belligerent, often muttering hideous and hateful diatribes under his breath. Restaurant servers and grocery clerks scattered at the sight of him, like frightened Tokyoites from a raging Godzilla. He was almost universally despised, but I became one of the few to feel genuine pity for him. After all, this was a real-life Scrooge, just without the benefit of moralistic ghosts to shepherd him toward basic decency. The last I heard of him was an angry screed to the local paper, wishing he could chuck every immigrant out of this country. If he’s still alive, he’s probably gulping whiskey and growling at his TV, as I type these very words.
Based on the book, A Man Called Ove, by Frederick Backman (and the Oscar-nominated Swiss film by Hannes Holm), Otto takes a similarly nasty grouch and dreams up a path to redemption for him. If the word misanthrope had never been invented, we’d have to fashion it for Otto (Tom Hanks). He’s as if a cactus could sprout legs, walk into a store, and immediately bark for the manager. As the story begins, Otto squabbles with a hardware store clerk because he was overcharged a few cents for a length of rope. The other customers offer to pay the difference, but Otto won’t have it: Just like every other grinchy bastard, he makes every encounter a battle of principle.
Turns out, this particular battle could be his last, because that overpriced rope is meant for a noose. At this point, it feels like Otto is committing the ultimate act of blustery indignation: He’s so goddamn annoyed with all the idiots and layabouts–all the people who can’t just follow the flippin’ rules–Otto is going to subtract himself from the equation in protest.
Of course, this movie stars Tom Hanks, so it has to be a feel-good spectacle. Otto can’t just scale one last meaningless hill and die on it, although I would applaud the film’s tone-deaf bravery for ending on such a false note. No, our salty, weathered anti-hero has to find a reason to live, and it has to give us a reason to cheer him on. This is one of those movies that ain’t over until you’re either crying, smiling, or both. And, after 130 minutes, if you’re not blubbering at least a little bit, well…I’m afraid you’ll just have to fake it.
Otto’s emotional pilot light gets relit by the arrival of Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). They’re the living embodiment of the movie’s mission statement: Be friendly and outgoing, to the point of belligerence. Just like Otto, you’ll either slowly fall in love, or else run screaming for the hills. Marisol and Tommy are kind and clueless, and Otto can provide just the common sense help they need. It also doesn’t hurt that the couple has two adorable daughters (Christiana Montoya and Alessandra Perez), who instantly regard Otto as a scowling cartoon character. Slowly and surely, Otto’s frozen soul begins to warm.
Naturally, the filmmakers aren’t gonna rely on one family’s lovable quirkiness to spring Otto from his curmudgeonly dungeon. Just for good measure, we also get: An eccentric-but-benign neighbor, a frenemy who’s now a shut-in, a kindly transgender boy, and several Capra-esque villains from a real estate conglomerate. Oh yeah, and there’s also a scraggly feral cat, who loves how much Otto hates him. All these individuals may have the depth of sitcom characters, but at least it’s a pretty good sitcom.
Even better, the actors who play them do a great job of buying into Otto‘s flyweight dramedy vibe. It goes without saying, but I love to type and I’m gonna say it anyway: Hanks is an old pro, and he anchors the film by playing Otto somewhere between Gran Torino and Fred MacMurray. He’s just like the pastries he devours–crusty on the outside and gooey in the middle. (Watch out for Hanks’ son Truman as Otto in flashbacks.) Treviño is a revelation, providing just right sweetness to counteract Hanks’ salt block. In those flashbacks, Rachel Keller does a fine job as the woman who once held the key to Otto’s oversized heart.
By and large, Otto goes exactly where you think it will, so everything depends on your attitude along the way. The movie doesn’t just go sweet; it’s a saccharine avalanche. You can either let the sticky, sugary mountain come down around you, or else go stream gruesome true crime dramas. In any case, A Man Called Otto is a charming, passable fantasy that provides 130 minutes of distraction. If that real-life liquor store grouch is still out there, I hope he finds this movie. Then, maybe he can seek out some kooky, guileless neighbors, and they could transform him into a Scotch-drinking softie. That would be a film for the ages.
130 min. PG-13. On demand.