In “A Man Called Otto,” Tom Hanks plays one of those misanthropic over-the-hill loners who never misses a chance to vent his spleen. Giving a hard time to everyone is what gets him through the day; you might call it his hobby. From Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” to Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine,” we’ve seen this sort of get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon many times before. But with the right actor and the right script, it’s a formula for yocks (and for gently rediscovered humanity) that audiences never get tired of — and Hanks, make no mistake, is the right actor for this role. For years, when he was America’s top movie star, Hanks was routinely described as our own James Stewart, the soul of guy-next-door decency, but going back to his earliest performances in films like “Bachelor Party” Hanks has always had an edge to him. That’s why his niceness was never cloying. (James Stewart had an edge, too. All the great stars do.)
The opening scene of “A Man Called Otto” is promising, as Hanks’ Otto Anderson, a newly retired widower of about 60, attempts to buy a measurement of rope at a chain hardware store, only to learn that the store’s bureaucratic pricing protocols won’t allow him to pay for the exact five feet of rope he wants to purchase. He’ll have to pay for six feet. This completely unhinges him, not because he’s so cheap but because it’s the sort of built-in consumer exploitation that represents, to him, a larger slackening of standards.
Hanks harumphs with an irresistible self-justifying logic, and the clueless response on the part of the store’s millennial clerks, who are doing all they can to accommodate his tantrum, is the icing on the high-dudgeon cake. The secret weapon of a scene like this one is that even though Otto is overreacting like a jerk, in his petty and snappish way he’s sort of right. It should bother people, a little bit, that a corporation designs it so you can’t just buy five feet of rope.
If “A Man Called Otto” had followed up on the premise of that scene, it might have been a better movie — funnier, more biting, less formulaic — than the wheezy by-the-numbers tearjerker it is. Imagine that the Hanks character was stuck in a rut of bad vibes, but that much of his complaining was funny because it carried a caustic ring of truth. That sounds like a crowd-pleaser.
But David Magee, who wrote the script of “A Man Called Otto” (inspired by the 2015 Swedish film “A Man Called Ove”), and Marc Forster, who directed it, don’t have anything that witty in mind. The film starts off rooted in the real world but turns into a soft-headed “redemptive” fairy tale. Everything gets turned up a notch; even the potentially uproarious scene of Otto dishing out abuse to a hospital clown withers in the clown’s telegraphed overreaction. The movie is trying so hard to be a crowd-pleaser, in its reach-for-the-synthetic, sitcom-meets-Hallmark heart, that it will likely end up pleasing very few. It’s the definition of a movie that Tom Hanks deserved better than.
Otto, in case you were wondering, plans to use that five feet of rope to kill himself. He’s still reeling from the recent death of his wife, and he intends to hang himself in his living room (from a hole he punches into the ceiling — a doomed plan or what?). I’ve never been crazy about botched-suicide comedy, going back to the prelude sequence of “Harold and Maude” (sorry, not a fan of that calculated cult ’70s quirkfest). The reason isn’t that I think it’s so scandalous but that it’s actually, under the surface, quite sentimental. The joke is always the same: that the suicides fail because the person…really wants to live. In this case, the idea that Hanks’ Otto has given up on life is a conceit the audience scarcely pretends to buy.
Otto occupies a condo in the same soothing blue prefab row-house development he has lived in ever since he married Sonya (Rachel Keller), the true love he first spotted on a Philadelphia train platform — she dropped her book! He picked it up and ran after her! All the way to the other side of the platform! — when he was a young man.
The film is threaded with flashbacks to their relationship, and they’re built on the potentially effective stunt casting of Truman Hanks, Hanks’s 27-year-old son, as the younger Otto, who came to Philly to enlist in the military, which turned into a doomed mission. Hanks’ acerbic actor son Colin has often seemed a chip off the old block, but Truman Hanks comes off as notably sweeter, softer, and more benign than his dad. In almost any movie you’d have to squint to buy him as the young Tom Hanks, but in this movie, where we have to believe that this angelic nerd evolves into a sharp-tongued malcontent, it’s far too jarring a leap.
Of course, it didn’t just happen. There were…events. And if there had been only one, it might not have planted the film on tracks of contrivance. But “A Man Called Otto” is built on enough Lame Screenwriting 101 devices to fill a trilogy of old-school second-rate awards-bait movies. There’s the cataclysm that befalls Otto and Sonya. There’s the long-simmering estrangement between Otto and his friends and neighbors (Peter Lawson Jones and Juanita Jennings). And, of course, there’s the conceit that propels the film: Marisol (Mariana Treviño), Otto’s new neighbor, gloms onto him for help, and he starts to help her so much that he practically becomes an honorary family member.
In case all those don’t get to you, the movie makes a point of throwing in a transgender former student of Sonya’s, who’s there to demonstrate that Otto may grouse at the world but that he sees it entirely without prejudice. He’s a hater with a heart of gold. “A Man Called Otto” wants to lift our spirits, but the trouble with it is that the nicer Otto gets, the more naggingly fake the movie becomes. It should have been called “Florid-est Grump.”