Review: ‘A Man Called Otto’ recognizes that there’s humor in tragedy

As a critic, I try not to pre-judge movies before I watch them, but the truth is, I watch trailers just like everyone else, and it can be challenging to avoid forming some opinions before I see the film. I went into A Man Called Otto with low expectations. I expected it to be a fluffy piece about a misunderstood, grumpy old man who finds joy in his quirky neighbors. Perfectly fine, but a movie I had seen. 

[Content warning: This review includes discussion of suicide and infant loss.]

A Man Called Otto is a moving story

[Editor’s Note: There are spoilers ahead for A Man Called Otto.]

While A Man Called Otto is that movie, it is also so much more. This Tom Hanks feature from director Marc Forster uses that basic story structure to tell a moving and nuanced story about the pain of loss and finding our way back to ourselves and others when it feels like those paths have been closed off.

Otto (Tom Hanks, all the movies you’ve ever loved) just wants to buy a length of rope, but the idiots won’t even let him do that without hassle. He needs this rope because today is the day he’s going to kill himself. 

Having not read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, I was unprepared for the movie to whiplash between a fairly humorous scene and a suicide attempt so quickly. While this can be a lot to process, the adaptation from David Magee deftly handles these pendulum swings in a way that feels compassionate rather than chaotic.

Otto’s plans are thwarted by a faulty ceiling screw and an interruption from his pregnant new neighbor Marisol (Mariana TrevinoClub de Cuervos) and her husband Tommy (Manuel Garcia-RulfoThe Magnificent Seven), who just moved in across the street with their two daughters. 

The cause of Otto’s pain

We discover that Otto’s wife, Sonya (Rachel Keller, Fargo), died and that he can’t find a reason to go on without her. The further the movie goes, the more we understand his attachment to his wife, not only because she was someone who understood him, but because following a tragic accident that left her without the use of her legs, they lost a baby, leaving the two of them as their only family.

As someone who has experienced a stillbirth and has looked into the face of a loved one struggling with suicidality, this movie struck a chord with me that I never expected. While some films could address these issues by being overly sentimental, A Man Called Otto seemed to recognize that there is humor even in these tragedies. 

The wide cast of characters beyond the primary actors of Hanks and Treviño bolsters the story. Otto’s long-time friend turned enemy, Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones). The trans paperboy and former student of his wife, Malcolm (Mack Bayda). The perky social media reporter Shari (Kelly Lamor Wilson). The mangy cat skulking around his house. Each of these characters bears the brunt of Otto’s rage, but they also serve to show Otto that despite his best efforts, he is not alone. Each time Otto tries another method of ending his life, someone shows up, keeping him here until he can find the internal desire to stay. 

Treviño lights up the screen with her performance

But all of that doesn’t work if the two primary characters don’t engage us, and both Hanks and Trevino give performances that allow us to love Otto and Marisol. Hanks plays against type, leaning into his curmudgeon era. Meanwhile, Treviño gives as good as she gets, never allowing herself to be outshone by the veteran actor, instead absolutely lighting up the screen with her performance. I loved the two of them, and by the finale, their friendship moved me to tears.

I do want to be clear: this is a largely predictable movie. We know that Mike Birbiglia’s evil developer character isn’t going to win and tear down the neighborhood. We know that Marisol is going to figure out how to drive. And we know that the little girls will break through Otto’s tough exterior to find his heart of gold. This movie goes where you expect it to go.

Meaningful even though it is predictable

But I don’t go into A Christmas Carol, not expecting Scrooge to learn the true meaning of Christmas. I don’t watch When Harry Met Sally without expecting Harry and Sally to get together. I don’t watch An American Tail, not expecting that Fivel will find his way back to his family. These movies may be predictable, but that doesn’t make them less poignant or, meaningful or fun.

There can sometimes be a sense that a movie is automatically not as good because it follows a formula. Yes, A Man Called Otto is a formulaic movie. But a warm chocolate chip cookie is also a formula, and chocolate chip cookies are delicious. 

The world has pain. We lose people we love. We can feel lost when things change faster than we can keep up. Sometimes, we want to give up and make all of the pain, loss, and change stop. But there are neighbors. And cats. And chocolate chip cookies. And nice movies starring Tom Hanks. Including A Man Called Otto.

4 out of 5 stars

A Man Called Otto is now streaming

A Man Called Otto is now streaming on Netflix.  You can watch it there or however you prefer to experience your streaming media. Have you already seen the movie? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below or by sending a message on X @MoviesWeTexted.

If you’re interested in the book A Man Called Otto is based on, check out Brian Kitson’s review of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

If you’re looking for another perspective on the movie, Ayla Ruby reviewed A Man Called Otto earlier this year.