A Man Called Otto

A Man Called Otto finds Tom Hanks in a crankpot role similar to the kind Clint Eastwood successfully played in Gran Torino and Cry Macho. Hollywood's nicest guy as a grump? The subversive casting works surprisingly well. Hanks gets a character unlike any he's ever tackled before, and we get the fun of seeing him tap into a darker side. The movie, a remake of the 2015 Swedish film A Man Called Ove, is pretty formulaic for the most part, yet the Oscar-winning actor's performance salvages the many predictable elements.

Hanks plays Otto Anderson, a fastidious widower who lives in a gated neighborhood. He's the type of guy who has no qualms about screaming at people for failing to close that gate. Life without his beloved wife Sonya has come to have no meaning, so he decides to hang himself. Before that can happen, he ends up getting pulled into the lives of his new neighbors, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and their two daughters. It starts when he sees Tommy incompetently trying to back up a U-Haul trailer and goes from there. His attempts to end his own life are continually hampered by their neediness. Marisol, in particular, seems to recognize that Otto is in pain and maybe, just maybe, not as big a jerk as he comes off.

Much of the time, A Man Called Otto plays the character's surliness for laughs. He's impatient and sarcastic with everyone in the neighborhood. He berates a UPS driver. He takes a swing at a clown in a hospital after a magic trick gone wrong. It's almost amazing how many different ways Hanks finds to play irritation. With a one-note approach, the movie could have become stale quickly. The actor varies the tone and intensity of Otto's outbursts, always knowing whether mild annoyance or full-on cantankerousness will get the bigger laugh.

Later scenes go for a deeper impact as we learn about Otto and Sonya's relationship and, subsequently, grow to understand the magnitude of his sorrow. (Tom's son Truman Hanks plays young Otto in flashbacks, and Rachel Keller plays Sonya.) This is where the casting of Hanks pays off most fully. Because he's such a skilled actor, we're able to understand precisely how the character's manner has been driven by grief. With Sonya gone, he feels that he has nothing to live for, but he's stuck living anyway, at least until he can manage to pull off his suicide plan. Related to that, Hanks makes the transformation credible as Otto gradually realizes that maybe life can be worth hanging on to. Instead of being corny, the bond he slowly forms with Marisol comes off as sincere.

When sticking to that core idea, the film is solid entertainment. Where it falters is in a couple of subplots that don't go anywhere significant. In one, Otto deals with a real estate agent (Mike Birbiglia) working to build condominiums right behind the neighborhood. Another finds a “social media journalist” named Shari Kenzie (Kelly Lamor Wilson) trying to profile Otto after he goes semi-viral. A third involves a sickly neighbor Otto has a long-standing feud with. David Magee's screenplay ties these three threads together at the end in a dumb, contrived manner. I'm pretty sure I literally rolled my eyes at the preposterous coincidence we're asked to swallow.

This nonsense constitutes about one-quarter of the 126-minute movie, so the damage isn't terribly extensive. A Man Called Otto largely adheres to the main story, which is what we really want to see. Even if little about the film is original, it definitely works as a feel-good reminder that people can change, life can have meaning even in its darkest hours, and nobody is ever truly alone as long as they aren't afraid to open up to other people. We know these things already, but seeing Tom Hanks show how Otto learns them makes the lesson worth hearing again.

out of four

A Man Called Otto is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving suicide attempts, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.