We’ve all met a “Karen” before — a person who berates minimum-wage service workers when they don’t get their way, and then demands to speak to the manager. “Karen” has become standard vocabulary for Millennials and Gen Z. So has “OK Boomer” — a phrase used to wearily (or sarcastically) dismiss the actions of specific older people who are set in their ways, out of touch and often discriminatory.
For a long time, I wondered if it was possible to feel sorry for the people these phrases describe: demanding bullies lacking in empathy who must have their way. Jane Fonda’s character, Grace, from the Netflix hit “Grace and Frankie” was probably the first “Karen” I felt sorry for and began to understand. After realizing her husband has been in a gay extramarital affair for decades and learning she is being divorced, she is ignored at a supermarket checkout counter — the clerk is too busy flirting with a younger woman. In that moment, she, as an older woman, feels ignored, forgotten, unimportant — so she screams and throws a fit to get her way, to regain what little control she has left.
Tom Hanks plays Otto, the ultimate man-Karen, in “A Man Called Otto,” a film adaptation of the 2012 novel “A Man Called Ove" by Fredrik Backman. He’s certainly someone I would dismiss with an “OK Boomer” in real life — but by the end, he has the viewer’s sympathy and has more than earned redemption.
The film opens with Otto arguing with a checkout clerk over its policy and demanding 33 cents back for the rope he intends to hang himself with — because “it’s not about the money, it’s the principle!” His wife has recently died, and Otto sees no more point in living. Throughout the film, Otto continues to attempt to take his own life but is foiled every time — often because his neighbors are doing something so stupid that he just has to get involved, this one last time. Meanwhile, he continues to shovel the walk, yell at people without parking permits, and dismiss everyone around him as idiotic.
In the same way Grace likely felt forgotten, Otto feels that the world is trying to erase him. The local construction company serves as a villain in this film, building all sorts of condos where trees once stood around Otto’s home and doing their best to force out old residents in favor of more desirable ones. Otto, a practical man and an engineer, bemoans what he sees as the stupidity of the new generation, people who cannot fix their cars or bikes or radiators — the world seems to have moved on without him, and in a worse direction.
I was reminded of the “Up” character Carl, an old man who had life in him when his wife was around but has become bitter and derisive now that the world and his neighborhood have changed and his wife has died. Much like Carl, Otto must interact with new people against his will — and those people, through their sheer optimism and energy, slowly begin to change him and show him that life is worth living.
This has all been done before, and nothing about this film is original (Carl Fredricksen, Otto Anderson, etc.), but it is certainly heart-warming and tear-jerking, nonetheless. Otto also knows when to give people credit on occasion, even if he’s cynical. He’s not discriminatory — everyone is an idiot by default in his world — and he doesn’t view demographic groups of people as being responsible for his problems, which is probably why he is able to open up and why things get better for him.
He gives Marisol, his exuberant Latina neighbor, credit for coming to another country and learning a new language so she can provide a better life for her children. He lets a young trans man, Malcom, sleep on the couch when his father kicks him out — and lets Malcom know his father is an idiot. He even comes to appreciate the power of social media, when used for good (to expose idiots). Otto, pernickety as he may be, has the right material deep down — he just needed some encouragement from a loving community of neighbors to begin living again.
A by-the-numbers film, “A Man Called Otto” is well worth seeing, and a reminder of a few important lessons. We should do our best to be kind to our neighbors, especially the marginalized and the elderly — without his community, Otto could have been the subject of “Eleanor Rigby” or “A Most Peculiar Man.” And, of course, tragedy befalls us all — but there is always something worth living for in the aftermath, especially if you open your heart to the right people.