The year 2022 was not a great one for Tom Hanks. He appeared in two films – Elvis and Disney’s new version of Pinocchio – and his acting choices in both were somewhat baffling for those of us who have loved his performances over the years. At first blush, playing the lead in A Man Called Otto seems odd, too, as it calls upon him to play a grump, a trait that wouldn’t seem to mesh with his typically friendly demeanor.
The introduction of Otto (Hanks) certainly sets him up to be someone you’d want to avoid, as he bickers with hardware store employees, fusses over people not following the rules in his small townhome community in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, and harrumphs about encroaching real estate developers. The arrival of perpetually-upbeat couple Marisol (Marina Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) threatens to thaw his icy outlook, but only slightly.
It’s gradually revealed that, while Otto has long been persnickety, his current state of mind is influenced by the recent loss of his wife, Sonya. In bits and pieces, we bear witness to the beginnings of Otto and Sonya’s relationship (played in flashback by Hanks’ son Truman and Rachel Keller), memories that weigh heavily on the older Otto as he tries to decide what to do with the rest of his life.
Based on the Swedish book and movie A Man Called Ove, the film gets very dark at times, as Otto’s thoughts and depressive mindset lead him down some questionable roads. But, as directed by Marc Forster and written by David Magee, it’s balanced by lighter moments that, rather than being at odds with the bleak elements, complement them well instead. Some of them are overly goofy, but the majority of them are played straight, which benefits the story immeasurably.
The pairing of the tones is helped immensely by the character of Marisol and Treviño’s performance. There are films that would use Marisol merely as comic relief, making her whole character feel like a joke. But here she’s the heart and soul of the film, making the story come alive every time she’s on screen while also serving as the conduit through which Otto finds some sort of meaning again.
Other elements are hit-and-miss. A transgender boy named Malcolm (Mack Bayda) comes out of nowhere, but his presence provides some nice scenes. The flashback sequences give context to Otto’s life, but the performance of the younger Hanks (making his acting debut) leaves something to be desired. Also, the film only shows the young, idealized version of Sonya, giving only lip service to the person she was in her older years.
But the film ultimately works because Hanks finally gets back to being the compelling actor he usually is. Otto is a one-note kind of character, but Hanks gives him a nuance that not every actor is capable of reaching. And any changes that Otto goes through over the course of the film are mostly sold through Hanks’ ability to make even the most curmudgeonly person relatable.
A Man Called Otto is a pleasant surprise given its relatively low profile amid Oscar season and Hanks’ recent track record. It has a message that most people would do well to heed, not just those who think the world is out to get them.
A Man Called Otto opens in theaters on January 6.