Otto (Tom Hanks) is a Grump. That much is clear from the movie’s opening scene. First he argues with a sales associate who wants to help him cut the rope he wishes to purchase. Then he argues with the checkout clerk who says he must pay for two yards of rope when he only needs five feet. It’s not that Otto can’t afford to pay the extra thirty-odd cents, he doesn’t want to pay for what he doesn’t need. When the clerk explains that the computer register can only ring him up for a per yard purchase, he asks, “What computer can’t do math?” Otto’s argument ultimately amounts to nothing, but he’s the sort of person who’s always ready to argue something on principle. Even though what he’s arguing about–five feet of rope, is what he intends to use to kill himself.
After confronting a series of irritating events the rest of the day, Otto proceeds with what he was intent on doing all along: hanging himself. He dresses in his best suit, secures the rope to the ceiling and slips the noose around his neck. Just when he’s about to step off of the table, there’s a commotion outside. Someone’s trying to parallel park a car with a trailer and is failing miserably. Angry and annoyed, Otto storms out of his house, commandeers the vehicle and parks it. (The family is equally grateful and stunned.) After tossing a few barbs at the hapless husband (“How you can have made it this far in life without knowing how to back up a trailer?”) Otto heads back home to resume the task at hand.
Just Otto is ready to try again, there’s a knock at the door. (“Damnit! Damnit! Damnit!”) He opens the door and stares at Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), the couple with the car. They express their gratitude and Marisol hands Otto some food she’s cooked. Otto tersely thanks them and attempts to close the door, but Marisol insists on exchanging names. Then Tommy says he needs an “Alvin” wrench. When his neighbors are finally gone, he tries to hang himself again but–to his chagrin, he’s too heavy to hang from the ceiling. Instead, he lands with a loud thud onto the floor.
Undeterred, Otto tries to kill himself several more times, with each attempt interrupted by a request for help, usually from Marisol. As the saying goes, life happens when you’re making other plans. In Otto’s case, life keeps him alive when all he wants to do is join his recently deceased wife Sonya (a radiant Rachel Keller in flashbacks). Without her, Otto no longer wants to deal with the inanity of everyday life, especially people who don’t follow the rules or can’t help themselves.
With each failed suicide attempt, Otto reminisces on his life with Sonya: the day they first met, the night they fell in love, the vacation when their lives were forever altered by a tragic accident. More importantly, Otto also remembers that there was more to Sonya than their marriage. The memory of Sonya helps Otto become friends with Marisol, as well as repair a friendship he discarded after Sonya died. In the end, Otto becomes an extended member of Marisol’s family and even a social media sensation. (Social media is a good thing? This must be a movie.)
As you may have guessed, Otto is all about nostalgia. Not the wistful or remorseful kind, but a nostalgia that leads to insight and understanding. The kind that’s more than just remembering key events in your life and what you’ve lost, but why those things were important to you in the first place. For Otto, nostalgia is a constructive exercise that helps him figure out how he should live the rest of his life. This could all be described as sentimentality on the movie’s behalf, but as someone getting on in years, the message resonated with me.
Hanks is front and center in Otto, and he can carry the dramatic elements of a movie like this one while sleepwalking. To my surprise, Otto is also a showcase for something I haven’t seen from Hanks in a long time: a comedic performance. I suppose Elvis technically counts, but I’m dubious that all of the laughs he got in that role were intentional. Otto isn’t a return to the broadly comedic roles that make Hanks famous, but it does let him play an exasperated character for laughs, something he does better than almost anyone.
Even though Hanks is in nearly every scene, he’s very comfortable with sharing the spotlight and knows when to let a scene stealer to their thing. Mariana Treviño is hilarious and touching whenever she’s on screen, and her feisty energy is a great counterpart to Otto’s crustiness. Keller is beautiful, as always, but she gives Sonya a noticeable sensitivity and intelligence in her few scenes. In case you notice a resemblance, Truman Hanks portrays Young Otto. Recommended.
I can easily relate to Otto. Instead of spending what was supposed to be his last day on Earth doing pleasant, comforting things, he chooses to rail against the inanities of everyday life. It doesn’t matter that the day will end with him hanging from the ceiling. He hates people who don’t follow the rules, or are helpless, or clueless, and has no problems telling them so. Otto’s targets are things that have probably ticked off everyone at some point in their lives. Unlike everyone, Otto doesn’t just shrug it off. His wife Sonya was his filter, and with her gone, he just lets it rip. In this way, Otto is an everyman, albeit an incredibly grumpy one.
The first fifteen-twenty minutes of the movie brilliantly establish Otto as a suburban Howard Beale. Otto doesn’t even try to endure each irritation he’s forced to confront; he pushes back at each and every one of them. He’s testy with the clerks at the store who are either too helpful or not enough. People who let their dog poop on other people’s property, or even the sidewalk make him livid. He angrily picks up the paper circulars on the ground and tosses them into the trash. He re-sorts the contents of the recycling bins, angry that such a simple task confuses people to no end. (When Otto takes it upon himself to properly sort the recyclables, I joked with my wife that I would have that to keep me busy after I retire.)
For Otto, the litany of irritations has no end. He yells at people who park where they’re not authorized to park, like UPS drivers. He confronts the real estate people who use private roads to get where they need to go. He’s upset when his neighbors don’t properly display their parking permits as they have been instructed. The sight of men stretching outside wearing yoga pants is also particularly irksome. Men should never wear anything tight, and stretching should be done either at a gym or behind closed doors. Harrumph!
The scene of Otto’s last day on the job was priceless. He was replaced by the younger man he trained and had his hours reduced, but Otto’s boss still thinks that throwing a retirement party is a good idea. As someone who’s worked professionally for several decades, having to smile through the ridiculous words and actions of superiors is something I can’t wait to be free of. Bravo to Otto for calling his boss out on such blatant hypocrisy!
Finally, there’s the final insult. A telemarketing phone call that is actually a recording that tricks you into responding. Otto’s had enough. He goes through the hell that is modern day customer service phone prompts to get his phone disconnected, then the electricity. He’s outraged when he’s told that he has to pay for the last six days. He’s going to be dead–why should he pay for something he would no longer be using?!?
In most (if not all) of the above situations, I know I’ve responded with the obligatory “if I have to deal with this one more time I’ll kill myself!” threat. The difference with Otto is that this time he really means it. The joke being that Otto is so fed up with minor irritations that he doesn’t just want to blow off steam–he really will kill himself. It’s not over just one thing that pushes Otto over the edge, but everything taken together. He chooses death over a life filled with a thousand cuts.
Otto wasn’t always so cantankerous. Once upon a time, he was an engineer with a beautiful wife and a son on the way. Unfortunately, a busing accident tragically altered those plans. Otto proceeded to take good care of his wife until she passed, but the experience left him a bitter old man. Without his wife, all that’s left for Otto is to endure life, something he no longer wants to do. Life, curiously, does not want Otto to die. Instead, it keeps interrupting him, forcing him to re-engage with the world and the people in it (as well as one cat).
What I appreciated about Otto was how every one of his suicide attempts forces Otto to remember not only the key events from their life, but who his wife was. Sure, the initial flashbacks of Otto and Sonya’s opposites attract romance are cute, and those of the bus accident are horrifying and tragic. But what Otto had forgotten was that his wife loved more than him. She loved their neighbors and her students. For Sonya, her life meant more than being with Otto–it also included being there for others. This is ultimately the lesson Otto learns: life goes on, and you should always help people in need.
As a character, Otto is tied to nostalgia. He misses his wife and thinks back on their time together whenever he’s about to end his life. What I appreciated about Otto was how it shows that nostalgia can actually be more than a trip down memory lane. Remembering what life used to be like can also be instructive. At one point, Otto tells Marisol, “Everything in my world was black and white until I met Sonya. She was the color.” What he forgot was why she was the color. Through nostalgia, Otto finally remembers that Sonya loved everyone, and that he should honor her by doing the same.
The underlying message of Otto feels almost anachronistic. I’m not as old as Otto, but I can remember a time when nostalgia wasn’t weaponized to the extent it has been over the last several years. Unlike some people in society, Otto isn’t longing for a return to past glory, when he and people like him were kings of the hill. Otto just misses his wife. Sure, Otto’s nostalgia trips are initially about reconnecting to his past, but they wind up being the way he remembers something he’s forgotten. The nostalgia that fills Otto may be sentimental, but its aims are ultimately humanistic.
Another aspect I appreciated about this version of Otto is that it avoids turning Otto into a racist or a bigot. I was nervous when I noticed that Otto was placed among a very diverse cast. Unlike the Swedish movie, his best friend and his wife are Black, his new neighbors are all minorities, and his high-stepping neighbor is gay. Additionally, the movie’s events take place in Pennsylvania, a purple state that has many fierce Trump followers. (Michigan, where I live, is about the same.) To my relief, this Otto is the same as in the previous movie. If you follow the rules, Otto will leave you alone. If you don’t, he’ll chew you out no matter what your skin color is or what your orientation is.
The Leading Man
While watching Otto, I realized that it’s been a long time since I saw him in a lead comedic role. I guess his performance as Colonel Tom Parker in Elvis qualifies, but he was a supporting character in that movie. (I’m also not sure how much of what he does was intended to be funny or just came off that way.) Hanks usually has a funny moment or two in his dramatic films (ex: The Green Mile), but the last purely comedic role I saw him in was Forrest Gump, or perhaps Cast Away, although neither are primarily comedies, which also holds true for Otto. (IMDB has an odd sense of humor, because it categories Cast Away as an Adventure/Drama/Romance, with the romance being between Hanks and Wilson I guess.) Regardless, Hanks’ performance in Otto is the funniest I’ve seen him in over twenty years.
To be sure, Hanks isn’t going for the same type of funny that made him a household name in Big, Splash and The Money Pit. Otto is an angrier, more hostile character than Hanks has ever played before. Hanks can definitely be angry and funny at the same time. I’ll never forget his bit at the end of The ‘Burbs when, after insisting he be taken to a hospital, he throws a gurney into the back of an ambulance and jumps on it. (That was the funniest moment in the movie by a long shot.) Or in Cast Away, when he smacks Wilson after cutting his hand. What makes Otto work is how it allows Hanks to indulge in his ability to simultaneously be apoplectic and funny at the same time. This is what Hanks, when he’s allowing himself to be funny, is just brilliant at. Remember “There’s no crying in baseball?” Or Woody’s growing incredulity over how Buzz takes over Andy’s life? Hanks is a master at expressing rage without actually acting upon it. His characters definitely voice their outrage, but they usually hold themselves back from stepping over the edge. (The one time Hanks tried to portray a violent psychopath was in Cloud Atlas, and it was a disaster.)
I was also glad that Hanks avoided the temptation to try out another accent. I’m a fan of Hanks, but his accents have never been convincing. His Boston accents in The Post or Catch Me If You Can were distracting. His accent in Elvis was cartoonishly bad. I don’t think his Southern accent in Forrest Gump was believable, but the movie worked in so many other ways I was willing to overlook that part. Hanks thankfully uses his normal voice in Otto. Maybe those tricky Penssylvanian accents were just too daunting for him.
The Supporting Cast
The supporting cast is fine, but two performances stood out. This could be due to the fact that since they play characters who directly impact Otto’s life, they were written with a bit more nuance than the other characters. I won’t fault an actor for not being able to do much with an underwritten part. (I wondered what was up with the neighbor who only did high-step walking all day.) Whatever the case may be, Treviño and Keller left the best impressions on me.
I mentioned above how great Mariana Treviño is as Marisol. Rachel Keller is only seen in flashbacks as the girl who gobsmacked Young Otto. As with other things I’ve seen her in (Legion, Fargo, Tokyo Vice), she’s on hand to provide a beautiful, quirky yet unobtainable presence. The difference with Otto is that this was the first role I’ve seen her in a “normal” environment. She does more than just be beautiful, though. She’s not on screen much, but when she is she gives Sonya a lucent intelligence that explains why Otto misses her so much.
Aside from the two ladies, Julian Manjerico was hilarious as Beppo the Clown. He picked the wrong guy to play the disappearing quarter trick on.
Speaking of memory, I hadn’t seen A Man Called Ove in many years, so I honestly didn’t remember that movie was as inclusive and multicultural as Otto. Fortunately, Wikipedia set me straight. Things were changed a bit in Otto, but nothing that I would consider to be espousing an agenda. Ove’s new neighbors were a Swedish-Pakistani couple. His wife’s student was thrown out of her home for coming out as Gay. Ove’s best friend was White, which is not a surprise since Sweden is 86% White.
One thing Otto did leave out was the shocking death of Otto’s father. Maybe the filmmakers thought that American audiences wouldn’t know how to react to that scene, which is horrifying but also funny. (It played well in Sweden, anyway.)
Another change Otto made from Ove was to use evil Real Estate developers in the place of the evil government White Shirt bureaucrats. This makes sense because America doesn’t have socialized medicine or strong civic planning organizations. So, Reuben’s fate is at the mercy of unscrupulous real estate developers and incredibly lax guardianship laws. Making real estate developers the bad guys stood out for me because that trope seemed played out by the Nineties.
My wife confirmed that there was a cat in the prior movie and the book, which is awesome because cats in movies are always a good thing. (Except Pet Cemetery.)
Otto is Up minus the balloons. Since Up is one of the best movies ever made, take that as a compliment.