Thursday, 19 January 2023

A Man Called Otto (2023) - Movie Review

Tom Hanks as “the grumpiest man in America”.

As I got into last year with his villainous role in Elvis, Hanks isn’t as bad a fit for abrasive characters as his public persona would imply. But that’s not necessarily what he’s doing here, at least from what I saw. His performance as the titular Otto is more melancholic than outright ‘grumpy’, dealing with the loss of a loved one and just wanting the world to leave him in peace… while he plans his exit from it. The film is set up to take him on a personal journey where he learns to move past his grief and live life again, making him come out of his shell and all that, but I’d argue that the film doesn’t do that well with the idea.

And it’s not even because of Hanks’ performance. If anything, he’s too good a pick for this role, since it doesn’t really involve him going outside of his Everybody’s Uncle persona. Whenever the script tries to paint him as someone who is rude to others, it feels so sanitised that I half-expected him to start yelling “consarnit!” at people. His mannerisms, to me at least, come across less like he’s in the grips of suicidal ideation… and more like he’s just a social hermit.

The film directly compares him to a stray cat that roams the neighbourhood, and that certainly fits, but there’s also an air of neurodivergence that I got from him too. His attitude may rub some people the wrong way, but at every turn, whenever someone asks him to help them out… he does it. He’s gruff about it, sure, but it’s clear right from the start that the man has a big heart. Quite literally, in fact, with a later plot development that reaches The Space Between Us levels of cheese, and yet the cheesiness isn’t even the issue with it. Rather, it’s because the film is framed as if it’s gradually drawing out that side of him, as if his deeds only count when he presents them as society wants him to, which never feels like the case. Hell, with how the film will randomly take pot shots at social media and selfie streamers, you’d think it’d be a bit more consistent about looking like a good person vs. being a good person.

It doesn’t help that the cast surrounding Otto makes his decision to avoid everyone seem perfectly rational and logical, considering just how annoying they all are. Mack Bayda as a local newspaper delivery boy works out alright, and he gets some solid moments next to Hanks, but everyone else is playing things at such an obnoxious level that it adds to the attempts at gallows humour… in a less-than-appealing way. It gives off a lot of “can’t a man die in peace around here?” energy, and with how shrill the conversations get, I can’t help but wish he would get some peace around here.

It makes a little too much sense that the writer for this, David Magee, also co-wrote last year’s disaster The School For Good And Evil, as they both have the same fundamental problem: They present what should be a dramatic revelation that gets built up towards (‘good’ and ‘evil’ not being so cut-and-dry, Otto not being a bad person) right at the start, making the narrative progression of actually getting to it feel pointless and kind of irritating.

Now, that’s not to say that Otto as a character doesn’t work, however. When the film focuses on his emotional pain, Hanks does a lot with what he’s given, and I certainly wanted to see his character get better in that regard. But with how the rest of the film bends around that character arc, there’s some serious tonal issues that get in the way of engaging with it, not the least of which because the film clearly isn’t comfortable with being as dark as the subject matter would warrant. I haven’t watched the film that this is a remake of, so there’s a chance that these tonal and framing issues are just a case of bad translation, but that doesn’t make the questionable focal points as far as what needs to be ‘fixed’ about Otto sit any easier.

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