MPAA Rating: PG-13
CNS Rating: A-III
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Disclaimer: This review contains major spoilers.
Nobody wants to be around a grump, but everyone secretly loves them. Oscar and Grumpy Cat are proof. Nearly everyone wishes they could lash out at their enemies, but most have the social graces to take things in stride. Otto Anderson (Tom Hanks) has made an art form of complaints, finding fault in nearly every aspect of his neatly controlled life. Yet like Tolstoy’s Cobbler, grace is going to enter his life in unexpected forms.
A Man Called Otto is an often beautiful affirmation of life that reminded me at times of Frank Capra’s masterful work, which alone is enough to recommend a viewing.
The story begins with Otto making his daily rounds. His house is immaculate, and he wears a tie every day, even though he is retired. Though not employed by the homeowner’s association, he makes sure every parked car has the proper permit. “It’s a private road,” he angrily tells anyone who gets close. He insults a neighbor walking her dog and groans at another exercising in spandex.
Otto has a dark secret. He is trying to kill himself, preferably in a manner that doesn’t stain the furniture.
Fortunately, he is interrupted by a series of unwanted guests.
First, there is Marisol (Mariana Treviño), the loud, overly friendly new neighbor with two small children. She brings him quality Mexican food, but he is more concerned with her poor driving skills. Then there is the stray cat that, despite Otto’s best efforts, won’t die or leave him alone.
Gradually, the audience learns more about Otto’s background and the genesis of his misery. Slowly, he also starts to branch out, even babysitting Marisol’s kids while she goes to the hospital after her husband falls off the roof. When an old friend is threatened with eviction, he finally comes out of his shell, revealing his depression and gathering the neighbors to help the man keep his home.
Otto’s wife died six months earlier, and he cannot imagine continuing without her. She was the one thing in his life that went right. His poor heart had kept him from realizing his dream of being in the army. And an accident later took the life of their unborn son and left his wife paralyzed. He devoted his life to making her comfortable.
While this is certainly loving, it also runs the risk of becoming an idol, especially after she dies. Suicide seems like his only option, and other people are just getting in the way of his deadly plans. While sympathetic, Marisol challenges him. “We cannot live without one another,” she tells him. Watching the film, I thought about how we, as Catholics, stay in the Church Militant until our natural end, trusting the Church Triumphant will help us in this vale of tears.
The first two-thirds of A Man Called Otto is a masterpiece, revealing the protagonist’s motivations piecemeal as the plot smoothly runs forward. Hanks and Treviño give outstanding performances. Then comes several sudden and painfully awkward reminders that this isn’t Capra. Otto meets a “social media journalist” who wants to tell his story. At first, he tells her to scram, but later she saves the day. She does this through an embarrassing and unethical encounter, sticking a live streaming phone in the face of a hapless employee of the homeowner’s association.
Still, even while the film limps toward the end, it was refreshing to see a modern movie reject the suicide of an older man and embrace the idea that everyone can bring something to the world. When Otto does pass away, it is on God’s time, not his, and his reward will be waiting. He really did, in the end, have “a wonderful life.”
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