‘A Man Called Otto’ Themes And Characters, Explained: What Is The Meaning Of Otto’s Pursuit Of Death?


If you take a look at Marc Forster’s filmography, you’ll see that he oscillates between gritty, gut-wrenching drama and something that’s a little more lighthearted and crowd-pleasing. He even ventured into high-octane action with “Quantum of Solace” and “World War Z,” two movies that a lot of people love to hate, but I like very much. But after that, he returned to his melodramatic phase with “All I See Is You” and “Christopher Robin.” Now, between his shifting tones, the massive box office returns of his latest venture, “A Man Called Otto,” and the internet harping on about how the movie doesn’t have any cultural impact, I couldn’t figure out the mindset I needed to have to watch the movie. The fact that the plot revolved around the titular character trying to die and being unintentionally saved by his neighbors didn’t help as well. Still, I went into it with an open mind and came out of the other end a sobbing wreck because “A Man Called Otto” is one of the most emotionally poignant films of the year.

Major Spoilers Ahead

What Does “A Man Called Otto” Have to Say About Life and Death?

You can say that Otto’s viewpoint of life was quite myopic. Everything about him was molded by his father, and he didn’t know anything beyond what his father wanted of him. With his father gone and his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, Otto was aimless until Sonya came into his life. After becoming a couple, Otto’s life was shaped by Sonya, and, according to him, it was colorful. As their unborn son died in a bus accident and Sonya became paralyzed, Otto’s focus was solely dedicated to her. He couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, see anything beyond her well-being. So, when Sonya died of cancer, and he was essentially ousted from the company where he used to work, he simply didn’t have any reason to live. Although Otto didn’t explicitly follow any religion (he did want to be buried in the Christian way, but that was probably so he could be placed beside Sonya’s grave) and didn’t believe in an afterlife, he talked about joining Sonya after dying. Hence, he kept trying to die in various ways and ended up aborting the mission midway.

“A Man Called Otto” presented Marisol and Malcolm as two of the main reasons why Otto couldn’t die by suicide. The movie almost made it seem these two characters were life’s way of preventing Otto from dying. But, in my opinion, Otto wasn’t sure if he actually wanted to die. Because if a person is that sure about giving up, then their resolve to do so won’t be shaken by a knock on the door. They’d just go ahead with it. However, every single one of Otto’s “misfires” was a reflection of his internal hesitation. Hesitation about what you ask? That he had more to give to society than he realized. He appeared angsty while reprimanding Jimmy and Malcolm, stoking his enmity (over the brand of cars, apparently) with Anita and Reuben, or fussing about Marisol and Tommy’s issues. But he genuinely cared about them. It could’ve been his controlling behavior, but it seemed like he wanted all of them to have a good life while vibing with their presence. And all that depended on the survival of the gated community.

Is “A Man Called Otto” In Support Of Gated Communities And Anti-Real Estate?

Gated communities have garnered quite a negative connotation for the right reasons. These closed-off residential areas are usually synonymous with upper-class people, who allow only upper-class people to live there because they think that allowing anyone else will pollute the environment. In India, this practice is perpetuated by upper-caste people, and in America, it is done by the usual suspects: White people. So, the fact that a man like Otto Anderson was its face concerned me a little. But his proximity to Anita and Reuben (a black couple), Marisol and Tommy (a Mexican couple), and Malcolm (a transgender teen) proved that he wasn’t what we thought he would be, i.e., a senile old man with racist undertones. He was adamant about implementing the rules of the community because he wanted to keep it clean and in order. In addition to that, he probably believed that the application of the spoken and unspoken rules would hint at the community’s sense of unity, thereby warding off the real estate agents trying to take over the residential area.

So, yes, the main villains of “A Man Called Otto” were real estate agents. The company, which is hilariously titled “Dye & Merika” (because it sounds like “Dying America”), was already guilty of causing large-scale deforestation and creating condos. But, on top of that, they were pushing the old folks out of there so that they could break up the togetherness of the place and then take over the community in order to expand their condo-making business. How were they doing that? Well, I’d say it was a form of kidnapping because the Dye & Merika agents were extracting the private health records of Anita, Reuben, and even Otto and then peddling them off to “assisted living facilities.” Once that was in place, they kept hounding Anita and Reuben until they were too weak to resist. As soon as Anita signed on the dotted line, she and Reuben were ready to be picked up and sent to a retirement home. However, despite all his pessimism, Otto believed that, instead of depending on unknown “eldercare specialists,” the people of the community should look after each other because they had known each other for such a long time. That’d encourage a sense of harmony and show a middle finger to capitalistic trends.

Does “A Man Called Otto” Initiate A Boomers Versus Millennials and Zoomers Argument?

On a slightly tangential note, movies like “A Man Called Otto,” where the protagonist is a senile old man, fail to connect with the younger generations because they always try to get their point across by berating said younger generations. In my opinion, that seems counterproductive because if your target audience is the subject of ridicule, then how do you expect them to listen, let alone accept your advice? So, initially, I thought that Marc Forster’s film was making the same mistake. Otto was being rude to Marisol and Tommy, who are in their 30s, hence millennials. Otto was heckling Malcolm, who clearly belonged to Gen Z. And then came the train scene, where Otto jumped in to rescue an elderly man who had fallen on the train tracks, while the youngsters merely recorded the whole incident and used it for likes and followers. The movie even doubled down on that moment by using a “social media journalist” to interview Otto for his heroics, thereby showing that everything was considered “content.” However, then the film started to subvert my expectations.

Although age isn’t necessarily indicative of experience or knowledge, if an old person has utilized their time on this planet to learn every kind of skill, they can be beneficial to society. So, instead of whining about why the younger generations are becoming less analog and more digital, if they can teach how to be self-sufficient without depending on technology, then that’d be rather helpful. And we saw Otto doing exactly that. He helped Marisol learn how to drive while assuring her that she was doing much more difficult things than driving, and hence, driving wasn’t as big of a hurdle. She scoffed at Shari Kenzie’s (the social media journalist’s) existence because he didn’t understand the nature of her job. But as soon as he understood that Shari’s job reached millions of people and that it could bring attention to how real estate agents function, he allowed her to use her reach and expertise for a good cause. Otto even tackled transphobia by teaching Malcolm how to maintain a car and then gifting it to Malcolm. Otto literally bridged several generational gaps by being compassionate, generous, and empathetic. If more old people can emulate Otto, then the world can become a better place.

Final Thoughts

It’s easy to infer that “A Man Called Otto” is about learning how to live for people who love you instead of thinking that your work on this planet is done because the person you love the most has passed away. But that will take away the “privilege” aspect of the film out of the equation. Keeping that in mind, I want to say that “A Man Called Otto” is about telling privileged elderly people who have an abundance of knowledge and wealth at their disposal that they want to take to their grave to be generous because it costs nothing. If the world has been bad to you all, it doesn’t mean that you have to leave it in a worse condition for those who are already struggling with capitalism and climate change. You can choose not to be senile and find ways to co-exist with the younger generations. But at the end of the day, it’s a choice that you’ve got to make based on the kind of legacy you want to be synonymous with. In addition to all that, the film is brimming with Marc Forster’s amazing direction, David Magee’s darkly comedic screenplay, Matthias Koenigswieser’s beautiful frames, Matt Chessé’s perfect editing, Thomas Newman’s soothing tunes, and brilliant performances from Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño, Cameron Britton, and the rest of the cast. Without a doubt, “A Man Called Otto” is one of my favorite movies of the year, and I highly recommend giving it a watch.

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Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit Chatterjee
Pramit loves to write about movies, television shows, short films, and basically anything that emerges from the world of entertainment. He occasionally talks to people, and judges them on the basis of their love for Edgar Wright, Ryan Gosling, Keanu Reeves, and the best television series ever made, Dark.

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