Rahul Desai writes on the life- and love-affirming qualities of the Tom Hanks-starrer.
Last Updated: 08.13 AM, Feb 11, 2023
This is #ViewingRoom, a column by OTTplay's critic Rahul Desai, on the intersections of pop culture and life.
I'LL ADMIT I went into A Man Called Otto with no expectations. The trailer promised a film that was, at best, a sappy hybrid of Gran Torino and After Life. A mean widower who speaks to his wife’s grave finds a fresh lease of life with the arrival of his new neighbours: a sweet Mexican family. More worrying was the fact that Otto is played by Tom Hanks, a terrific actor who seems to be going through a phase of temporary insanity. He had an absolute stinker of a 2022, delivering career-worst turns as a creepy manager in Elvis and carpenter Gepetto in Robert Zemeckis’ pointless Pinocchio. Not to mention Hanks’ famous all-round niceness, which rarely lets him play an unlikable character without seeming like he’s “acting”. The first few minutes of A Man Called Otto, based on the best-selling 2012 novel A Man Called Ove, confirmed those fears: Hanks looked like he was playing the live-action version of Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s Up.
And then something strange happened. A Man Called Otto grew before my very eyes; its commitment to all the tropes felt poignant. Slowly but steadily, I felt my cynicism melt away. Sometimes, simplicity is the best medicine. I started to notice that Otto’s is perhaps a performance within a performance — he’s a big softy who’s almost pretending to be grumpy and rude and heartless after his wife’s passing, which is why the tangibility of Hanks’ acting becomes a good thing. At some level, he wants the world to know that his grief is a measure of the great companionship that once defined him. He is also cutting off from the social norms of living — distancing himself, pissing people off or driving them up the wall with his parking rules — because he doesn’t plan to live much longer himself. He wants them to hate him so that nobody misses him. Consequently, Otto’s attempts at suicide are so deadpan and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to not be moved.
Here’s an old man who simply can’t wait to ‘meet’ his wife again, and the transition from one world to another is a small price to pay. A price smaller than the one he paid when he took the wrong train to return a book she had dropped, without even knowing who she was. If he could do that on an empty pocket for a stranger who would be his future wife, the mortal pain of dying feels like a formality in comparison. Except, life keeps interrupting his decision to leave. Other stories prevent him from finishing his own. His neighbour Marisol (a wonderful Mariana Trevino) needs a ride to the hospital because her silly husband, Tommy, breaks his leg. A trans teenager — his wife’s ex-student — needs a couch to crash on after being disowned by his family. His long-time neighbours, an ailing Black couple, need his help because they’re in danger of losing their home to an evil real estate company. A mangy cat needs a home.
Which is to say: Otto is still needed. He has been such a permanent fixture of time that time is reluctant to abandon him. Also, he’s terrible at dying: He fails at hanging himself, shooting himself, jumping in front of a train and suffocating in his Chevrolet. Every time he tries, his life flashes in front of his eyes. Memories weaken him. He remembers their first date, his marriage proposal, the accident that caused her miscarriage, her paralysis, and his caregiving till the very end. It’s this grief that saves him. It’s his bitterness that forces him to stay…a little bit longer. It’s his late wife that keeps him alive so that he can go out like the gentleman he once was, not the grump he became.
Look at me speaking about Otto like he’s a real person. Like I knew him personally — who he was, how he spoke, what he did. Like I saw his time with Marisol and the gang. Like I knew how he looked as a young man who failed his army medical but fell in love. Like I’ve met the others who knew him. That’s the thing about good movies — we often tend to look back at them as humans who lived and loved a certain way. The screen that separates fact from fiction fades away. Who’s to say our memories of cinema are any lesser than our memories of life? I suspect I’ll remember A Man Called Otto like I perhaps remember my grandfather. I used to go through black-and-white photo albums of my grandparents, often making up lofty stories in my head about how their younger versions met and spoke and got married. Maybe Otto’s meet-cute with Sonya, his soulmate, will be one of those stories. Maybe I’ll be unable to tell the difference. Otto never read but for some reason he returned the book Sonya lost, because he sensed that they might turn into that classic opposites-attract fairytale — where he liked machines and she liked words and their marriage quietly became a vehicle of Pennsylvania folklore.
Evidently, I’m a bit of a sentimentalist when it comes to ordinary love stories and old people losing their life partners. Men like Otto — like most of us — perceive their own feelings to be stronger than the next person’s, and they get reclusive and rude because they are convinced that nobody seems to understand their sense of loss. Love does that: It’s an emotion that makes everyone feel special and unique — like it has exclusively chosen only that heart. But its exit feels exclusive too, making a person feel uniquely hopeless and specially sad. My favourite moment of A Man Called Otto, though, is one that marks the arrival of love. It features a young Otto — played by Tom Hanks’ equally nice-looking son, Truman Hanks — on a first date with Sonya. He takes her out to dinner at a local restaurant. She enjoys her steak. But she notices that he’s only ordered a soup starter. And he’s cleaned it all up. When she inquires why he isn’t ordering a main, he says: “So that you could”. Her world stops. That’s when she realises that he can’t afford a full dinner for them. He’s broke, but he’s sacrificed his own meal for her. He’d rather have an empty stomach than an empty heart. Before he tries to leave from sheer embarrassment, she pulls him back and kisses him. He’s the one.
It may sound like a corny scene, but it reveals one vital truth: Selflessness is the first symptom of love. Perhaps some years ago, I’d have scoffed at something like this. But the lump in my throat today suggests that I’ve discovered this truth only recently. Every day, I’ve felt this unconditional desire to see my partner peaceful and happy — at any cost. There’s not been a moment as dramatic as Otto’s, but I find myself doing the most uncharacteristic things. The little gestures: Like giving her the last bite of a snack we both love. Like silently fixing myself a sandwich so that she can eat the (limited amount of) rice. Like paying for the odd plane ticket because I know she’s paying her parents’ medical bills. Like switching off the air-conditioner when she’s too decent to admit she’s freezing. Like breaking down if I see her cry.
I grew up as an only child, so selfishness was my default mode. I hated sharing food, toys, money and friends. My parents were ashamed of it. So this is quite an eye opener. When it comes to her, I’m so selfless now that I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience where the previous me is laughing at the current me; he’s teasing me — like old childhood friends do — for being unrecognisable because of a girl. I also know that I’ve organically become this way. Nobody asked me to. She didn’t point it out either. But I’ve been comfortable enough to evolve because she’s the kindest person I’ve known. She is so good to so many people that I can’t help but imitate that goodness — or at least aspire to it — with her. She’s the reason I’ve realised that romance is actually a language of altruism. Otto watched Sonya eat that steak because he knew that she’d have done the same for him. That’s why they met. That’s why they stayed. That’s why they cared, in sickness and in health. That’s why Otto refused to live after she died and refused to die because she lived.