Leave it to Tom Hanks to lead an even better Pittsburgh-filmed movie about what it takes to be a good neighbor than the one in which he literally played Mister Rogers.
Hanks begins “A Man Called Otto” as a miserable grump who believes everyone around him is an idiot and life simply isn’t worth the effort anymore. Even if you haven’t read the 2012 Fredrik Backman novel “A Man Called Ove” or watched its 2015 Swedish film adaptation, it’s not hard to guess how Otto’s journey in the Americanized version of this story will ultimately go.
Sometimes, though, it really is the friends we meet along the way who make even the most well-trodden territory worth exploring again. “A Man Called Otto,” which begins its run in Pittsburgh theaters Thursday, surrounds Hanks with a cast of game and eclectic performers who help elevate syrupy material into an effortlessly charming and disarmingly moving two-plus hours at the movies.
Also, there’s a cat. And he’s an extremely good cat.
Otto lost his wife (played in flashbacks by Rachel Keller), his job and his will to live in the span of just a few months. His attempts at killing himself, though, keep being interrupted by his new neighbors Marisol (Mariana Treviño) and Tommy (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). They slowly begin to chip away at Otto’s gruff exterior through everyday acts of kindness.
His found family begins to grow as he continues to rehabilitate his humanity. Reluctantly, he forms bonds with peppy jogger Jimmy (Cameron Britton) and transgender delivery boy Malcolm (Mack Bayda) while rekindling old friendships with neighbors Anita (Juanita Jennings) and Reuben (Peter Lawson Jones). He even becomes a local hero in the process.
And did I mention that stray cat who through sheer force of adorable kitty affection worms his way into Otto’s house, his bed and eventually his heart? Maybe it’s because I recently became a kitten co-parent, but this feline performance was purrfectly pitched.
Most of “A Man Called Otto” consists of a pleasant dramedy where Marisol and her family annoy Otto into submission to the point he has no choice but to fully rejoin the land of the living. It’s not always 100% successful at balancing those breezy sensibilities with Otto’s suicidal tendencies, but director Marc Forster displayed enough sense to never let any melancholic interludes override the film’s predominantly hopeful disposition.
“A Man Called Otto” slowly reveals the sources of Otto’s pain and anger, including his love story with his late wife, Sonya. That’s when the film goes full tearjerker, and, maybe I’m an easy mark, but I found tears flowing from my eyes for the better part of the film’s last 40 minutes. It’s a master class in emotional manipulation that’s too effective to be dismissed as simply trite or saccharine.
This is Hanks’ best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn as Fred Rogers in the 2019 Pittsburgh-shot film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Something about this city just seems to bring the best out of him, whether he’s playing a television icon or a belligerent old man with a grudge against everyone and everything. Even when his sour behavior is played for laughs, Hanks’ eyes always betray the suffering that led Otto to be like this and his suppressed desire for connection.
Treviño is revelatory as the very pregnant Marisol, who is such a kindhearted force of nature that there’s never a doubt about her being able to melt even the coldest hearts. Keller also stands out by making her young Sonya someone with whom both Otto and audiences can easily fall in love. She definitely veers into manic pixie dream girl territory, but that can be forgiven since her entire character is being filtered through Otto’s rose-colored recollections.
A lot of the pleasure in watching “A Man Called Otto” derives from how the titular character’s transformation also brings acquaintances old and new together. Again, there’s never a question about how things will transpire, but there’s something special about seeing all this neighborliness play out in Mister Rogers’ backyard.
Speaking of which, Pittsburgh viewers will need to be particularly eagle-eyed to figure out where a lot of “A Man Called Otto” was filmed. There are scenes that utilize Stangl’s Bakery in Ambridge and Busy Beaver of Lawrenceville, and Bellevue served as a major location during filming. There’s also a character in this movie who describes herself as a “social media journalist,” hopefully for a local outlet that treats its workers fairly.
When cinema lovers say, “They don’t make ’em like this anymore,” they’re talking about “A Man Called Otto.” It’s a small-scale story full of warmth, fun performances and normal people showing that being decent to each other can make the world a tangibly better place.
That’s the good stuff.