In A man named Otto, Tom Hanks stars as a grumpy older man named Otto, who is quite the dick. He’s a bit of a busybody. He lives on a quiet street in a Pittsburgh suburb where everyone seems to know each other and where you need a parking permit outside your window to park your car or someone (Otto) will notice. The older residents, including Otto, have a piece of history. This does not stop Otto from believing that everyone in his midst is an idiot. He is right; everyone is wrong. The whippersnappers with their phones and their social media. The young shop assistants whose insistence on helping this older man find what he needs makes Otto feel his intelligence is being insulted. The people who put rubbish in a bin – which Otto, a rule advocate whose daily routine consists of making his rounds and correcting his neighbors’ mistakes, makes it a point to dutifully pick it up and put it on the right place to throw away. Nothing seems to make him happy. A retirement party just reminds him that he felt bad about the job in the beginning. And he has no one – his personality doesn’t make this surprising, but still. When you watch, you immediately jump from wondering where his family is to thinking that a lack of family could explain why he is the way he is.
A man named Otto is pretty funny as a Tom Hanks experiment. It clarifies something about his persona. This is the man who played Mr. Rogers, who once worked to rescue Matt Damon from World War II with his dignity intact in the midst of staggering violence. He’s Mr. Trustworthy. Apollo 13, Captain Phillips and Tarnish all coast on his firm moral backbone, a correctness not obscured by a quick temper or the occasional stern stare. Hanks is one of those actors who uses his sternness so astutely that you feel like you’ve earned it. If he’s gotten weird, it feels like a joke: weirdness doesn’t come naturally to him. He occasionally plays with the unnatural. Grotesqueness, like the kind we saw earlier this year Elvis, where Hanks played the king’s scruffy, bloated, carnivalesque manager, is a trait that only works (or tries to) in Hanks’ hands because we know the actor is the radical opposite. We know it’s not true, but he’s a movie star, one of the best and one of the last. When a movie star of this caliber strikes a false note, we’re almost criminally willing to pretend it was on purpose. The riveting thing about Hank’s slippery, greasy fuck Elviswhat Hanks clearly enjoys is that it would be hard to prove us wrong.
As Otto, Hanks plays an older asshole from the About Schmidt variety – a classic coder. Or to put it in the Hanksiverse, a guy close to Jimmy Dugan, Mr. “There’s No Crying in Baseball”: a jerk who isn’t so bad in the end, the kind of guy you never quite hate even when he is hateful because you pegged him as a sentimental convert from the start. Otto is very cuddly in his way, kind of like a grumpy cat whose face you can’t help but hug despite it hissing at you – because you somehow convince yourself that the cat doesn’t mean it, even though bleed your scratches. This is how Otto is treated by his new, younger neighbors, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their young children. They know they get on his nerves. They know they are asking too many favors – becoming too much part of a man’s life who is giving off signs that he doesn’t want to be bothered. What they don’t know is that Otto has given up his life – in fact, was determined to kill himself when they moved in across the street. What we know is that a little excess love is just what the gods of movie formula have ordered.
A man named Otto is based on the 2012 novel A man named Ove by Fredrik Backman, which has already been adapted into a Swedish film of the same name. The movie is just good. Marc Forster actually knows what he has: a great star, a good script, a recognizable story. Done. Flashbacks tell us more about who he is (there was a woman, after all!) and why he is the way he is. Small incidents involving Otto and his neighbors and the conspiracy to shrink this grumpy into the big softie he really is culminate in a surprising act of solidarity, the kind of move we shouldn’t have doubted Otto was capable of. , because at the end of the day, he’s not an asshole because he enjoys it: it all stems from a bone-deep sense of right and wrong. He’s a dick, but he’s not dishonest.
The interesting thing is thinking about what the movie is and what isn’t. Otto has a gruffness that in the hands of another actor – say Clint Eastwood – would easily lend itself to becoming a gruff boomer hard-ass, a Gran Turin anti-hero on the same path from bastard to reluctant hero as the Otto we’ve been given, but with an awkward bite. A man named Otto often feels just about to give us a man who is truly offensive – less of a regular jerk and more of a problematic grandpa that is hard to endorse. But he swerves like a virtuoso.
Perhaps that’s what can make an ultimately mediocre movie like this feel so much fun: a likeable cast of eccentric balls and friendly faces encircles an expert Hanks as he performs a familiar but complicated two-step, a dastardly dance in all near-wrong but, ultimately, moral correct directions. It’s all under his control. His anti-hero is a hero from the start. In any case, the film almost overcompensates. The personalities at the center of Hanks are clearly diverse, ticking several boxes (Latinx, Black, trans, disabled, a full range of ages) with no – happy – feeling at cynically thought. Because Otto, as written, doesn’t reject that world—because he doesn’t call the young trans man dead at his doorstep, or spew racist smut against new minorities who come near him—we have to understand that as bad as he is seems as he is, if he’s not complaining about these things, he can’t be that bad. But the Hanks of it all speaks for that already. He doesn’t run the risk of coming across as a bad man. His appeal is to convince us that he is flawed and forgiving enough just as a man.