A Man Called Otto opens with Tom Hanks at the checkout in a DYI megastore complaining to the employees that he is being charged for stuff he’s not buying. This is meant to make him look like a crank, but… he’s right, and he is — very politely — making the excellent point that stores should not charge you for stuff you’re not buying. A bit later he is exasperated to discover that, yet again, his neighbors are putting the wrong things into their street’s common recycling bins, which are very clearly marked with regards to what goes where. And, again: he’s not wrong about this. Is it really so much to expect that grown-ass people will put things where they belong for the greater good of all?
I’m not sure the film ever hits on anything that Otto is being truly unreasonable about, which kinda deflates the premise of the story, which is that Otto is allegedly such a preposterous grump that other people have trouble liking him, but that somehow, their persistent and, I guess, unexpectedly cheerful kindness will eventually bust through his irascibility and save him from his life of angry aloneness. It’s as if the movie is afraid to make Tom Hanks (Greyhound, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) even a little bit genuinely unlikeable, in case, I dunno, he turns out to be really good at that contrary to the evidence of his entire career. Under the direction of Marc Forster (World War Z, Machine Gun Preacher), Tom Hanks trying to be grumpy yet endearing has the opposite impact. He’s not really grumpy, and he’s also somehow less endearing than he’s been almost ever before.
Upshot: there is a dull, cowardly mildness to Otto — and to Otto. This is the worst kind of white-bread Hollywood mush. It is a movie seemingly designed for people who claim to enjoy spicy food and then you discover they just mean “sprinkled with a little bit of black pepper.”
This mealy, saccharine-forward approach is a huge problem when another aspect of the movie requires at least a dash of bitter black comedy to work: the running motif about *checks notes* Otto being regularly interrupted in his *checks notes* suicide attempts by neighbors being neighborly or regular-folk bystanders being sociable and helpful. It’s no spoiler to reveal that this is what Otto is up to, because the movie begins with one such attempt. (Otto is buying rope with which to hang himself in that DIY-store scene.) But even if it were a spoiler, I would be duty bound to mention this anyway, because Otto’s approach to suicide is cavalier to the point of distastefulness, even recklessness, and advanced warning about it is required.
Otto wants to kill himself over grief for his wife (Rachel Keller in flashbacks) — boo for yet another “dead woman gives man feels” movie — but Forster, working from a script by David Magee (Life of Pi, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), aims relentlessly for the would-be heartwarming when some actually bleakness is needed. The tone could not be more wrong here. There may be a workable movie to be found in “Tom Hanks, America’s national dad, meticulously preps for suicide,” but dear god, this is not it. The ick and the ugh that builds up along the way almost guarantees that Otto cannot and will not earn its mawkish ending and the feel-good emotions it wants from them.
According to my records, I have seen the Swedish film A Man Called Ove, the success of which A Man Called Otto seems to have been spun out of: Ove was a modest hit worldwide and a 2017 Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. (They’re both based on the bestselling novel by Fredrik Backman.) According to those same records, I liked Ove okay. I have only the vaguest memory of it, but it’s not difficult to believe that an acerbic Nordic tartness could make this conglomeration of plot and character work. This adaptation lacks an acerbic Nordic tartness, however, and my memories of it will also blur into the merely vague very soon.