A Man Called Otto review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
In this American remake of the Swedish sleeper film, there's a mild necessity to return to this material. In the original story, the central character befriends, among other quirky neighbors, a gay young person. In this version, a young transgender person is befriended after being kicked to the curb. It shows that even grumpy old men can still have accepting hearts.
That grumpy old man is Otto, played with bitterness and sincerity by Tom Hanks. Having lost his wife to death and his job to a merger, Otto believes his life is over. He aims to commit suicide but finds it's not easy when he assumes too much control over his block. So when a Latino family moves in and needs everything from tools to driving lessons, death gets put on hold. Eventually, Otto learns that he should probably stick around to improve the lives of others the way his wife brought joy to his own.
Otto finds himself befriending a Mexican family who begs for help and repays him with food. Despite his reluctance, Otto is impressed by the pregnant mother’s many dishes, enough to fight off suicide for a minute if only to finish the meal and return the Tupperware. His old friend isn’t doing well, and the insurance company threatens to take him away if Otto doesn’t do something. Even random acts of unlikely kindness paint Otto as a hero, as when he saves a man who fell on the train tracks that he originally planned to kill himself on. Otto has the best (or worst from his perspective) luck in making the world a better place.
My problems with this version are similar to that of the original movie. It’s a picture that casually strolls between its small nuggets of bittersweet. There’s a friendship rekindled in Otto’s twilight years that is satisfyingly genuine. There’s a grander but standard plot of trying to save the neighborhood with the aid of an obnoxious social media journalist. There’s a goal for Otto to finally teach the Latino matriarch to drive a car, given his decades of experience in cars. In between these moments are tender yet tepid flashbacks to the happier times in his younger years.
There are a few minor changes and some big ones. One of the biggest switch-ups is that instead of the old man taking in a gay young man, Otto befriends a transgender young man. It’s one of the most modern touches to this tale, and it is passively pleasant to see Otto more or less advocate for trans rights, even if it’s as simple as him calling the boy’s transphobic parents stupid. Where the film succeeds best is how it charges forward with its melodrama that, after enough time, manages to work its magic. By the heartfelt climax, I have to admit the film got me with a tender smile.
A Man Called Otto doesn’t retool much of the original story but does manage to be a tad better for its genuine nature. It’s worth watching for Tom Hanks alone as he makes this grumpy old man with a heart of gold all the more lovable. He drives a film that feels like it could easily fly off the tracks with its off-beat nature and meandering sincerity. As a remake, it improves just enough to warrant a watch and slightly edges out the original.