A Man Called Otto

A Man Called Otto, directed by Marc Forster, is a film that attempts to be both grounded and reassuring. Dealing with topics such as loss, suicide and corporate ethics, it oscillates between light-hearted comedy and confronting situations. A lot of these situations verge on the unpalatable; while suicide is not something one can sanitise, what we see in the first couple of acts is detail in the absence of narrative justification – the plot is structured in such a way that we only begin to piece together why the protagonist is as he is well after these moments take place.

It is also a film that is tonally unsure of itself. Given the nature of its subject matter, it strives to be authentic, yet it simultaneously indulges in coincidence and other plot contrivances. What we are left with isa film that feels more surreal than it lets on, as if there is another version to the story that is struggling to break free.

Otto (Tom Hanks) is introduced to us as a protagonist quick to irritation. He complains about people not putting the trash in the correct containers, delivery drivers parking where they shouldn’t, and locals not monitoring where their dogs urinate. We do not initially know why he takes such an interest in the faults of others. This is a tried-and-true narrative technique that maximises emotional payoff – we tend to react strongly when we learn something about a character that was previously downplayed or that we do not expect. As for whether the film succeeds in eliciting such a reaction, I regrettably confirm that it doesn’t.

A significant portion of the story focuses on Otto’s failed attempts to end his life. He fails on his first attempt as a result a faulty hook, which he humorously criticises as yet another example of society’s ineptitude. In his other attempts, Otto’s success is thwarted by a mysterious force. I wish I could say that the narrative acknowledges this force, that there is something actively stopping Otto from taking his own life. Unfortunately, due to either a commitment to realism or an absence of thought, an opportunity to do something bold, dramatic and potentially moving is completely forgone.  

Otto does not have a guardian angel, and there is no reveal as to why he “got lucky” in each of these situations. The force that keeps our protagonist alive is framed by the narrative as nothing more than mere chance. I admit, the role that coincidence plays in these attempts is not without merit. One of the more memorable attempts occurs on a train platform. Before Otto throws himself onto the track, an elderly man faints and lands on the track before him. The timing of this incident is comedically framed as a nuisance; Otto is forced to delay his plan in order to save the gentleman. While funny, the situation does not appear to have any transformative effect on Otto – although this could signal an unwavering commitment to end his own life, I cannot help but view it as a narrative oversight.

Otto’s failures are also attributed to his finding himself in situations where he is needed. His attempt via carbon monoxide poisoning is interrupted when one of his new neighbours, Marisol (Mariana Treviño) bangs on his garage door in a desperate plea to be driven to the hospital.

Otto’s character progression seems far too quick and straightforward for someone introduced to us in such a depressed state. I had expected, and hoped, that there would be greater pushback from Otto when he is asked to take Marisol for a driving lesson, or baby-sit her kids. That’s not to say that I do not view these acts as beneficial for character development. On the contrary. The problem lies with the unexplained jump between Otto’s nihilistic world view and his desire to be a positive force in the community. The scenes of Otto helping others would have been far more affecting had he developed a reason to do it other than for the mere sake of it. Instead, it all feels forced, as if we are watching a man compelled to help based on moral principles, as opposed to genuinely caring about those he helped.

The characterisation in this film also has a lot to be desired. Aside from Otto, we see characters who personify a single attribute, to those with no personality at all. One of the locals, Jimmy (Cameron Britton), is played with an energy that is jarring to watch, especially when compared to the more fleshed-out characters. Aside from the fact that most of his screen time is of him doing lunges, he hardly breaks from his smile, and asks Otto (on more than one occasion) to join him in his exercises. In essence, Jimmy is a Truman Show extra. The younger version of Otto (Truman Hanks) is also disappointing. For a character intended to paint a picture of who Otto was before his depression, the younger Otto displays a fairly limited emotional range. I am willing to concede that this could be due to the film’s direction as opposed to the actor’s acumen.

Besides the inclusion of a joke involving the size of Otto’s heart, I cannot say that there’s much that particularly stuck with me. Its flashes of brilliance are few and far between and it doesn’t treat the topic of mental illness with nearly enough sensitivity or depth. There is potential in the story, but A Man Called Otto lacks that essential quality that makes a film worthy of your time.

5/10

Viewed at Cinemax, Europa SC, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia
Written by Ashley Roohizadegan
Ashley Roohizadegan

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