There's no doubt a smarter, meaner movie tucked inside director Gerard Johnstone's M3GAN, but the largely dopey, relatively tame one we're given is a lot of fun, too. Within the sub-genre of killer-doll horror flicks, the film doesn't really hold a candle to Magic or Annabelle: Creation or the Michael Redgrave segment of Dead of Night. It easily tops the original Annabelle, though, as well as Dead Silence, and The Boy, and The Boy's sequel, and any number of Puppet Masters and Chuckys … . Obviously, I've seen quite a few of these things, and you may have, as well. For my money, it was no hardship adding M3GAN to that very long list.
During the movie's first third, it was even a considerable pleasure. Opening with a deliriously tongue-in-cheek faux commercial for a furry new electronic gizmo that poops when kids feed it, Johnstone's outing stars Allison Williams as the career-obsessed robotics engineer Gemma, and right off the bat M3GAN has done something right. Get Out trained us all to view Williams' affable charm and placid demeanor with a hearty dose of skepticism, which makes her ideal casting for a figure whose friendly, naturalistic vibe distracts us from questioning whether she might, in fact, be the film's secret villain. After losing her sister and brother-in-law in a car accident, Gemma becomes the legal guardian of her niece Cady (Violet McGaw). Lacking any and all maternal instinct, however, Gemma doesn't know how to care for the child – and from the evidence we gather, doesn't seem to want to. (At least she isn't cruel about it; it's with great delicacy that Gemma shoos her niece away from the still-in-the-box toy “collectibles” that Cady wants to play with.) But Gemma has an idea. How would Cady like a companion – an untested A.I. prototype electronically engineered to be a girl's best friend?
Had Cady seen the fright films that we horror junkies have, her reply would be a steadfast “No thank you.” Alas, she didn't. So into the picture enters M3GAN, a model-three generative android who becomes genetically “paired” to Cady and programmed to feel her feels, soothe her pains, and keep her from harm. And perhaps not surprisingly, the strongest parts of Johnstone's movie lie in the early getting-to-know-you scenes before M3GAN becomes – No-Spoiler Alert – a homicidally possessive maniac. Although the android is initially designed to be a combination playmate/therapist with talents for drawing and crooning “Titanium” as a lullaby, it's not long before M3GAN has boned up on every piece of writing ever committed to the Internet, and she also becomes a wizard at gauging potential menaces: a braying next-door neighbor, a field-trip bully, a toothy canine. With her Uncanny Valley Olsen Twin prettiness and subtly shifting facial expressions, it's a creepy comedic kick watching this synthetic creature harness her burgeoning intelligence and suss out perceived (and accurate) threats. It's an even bigger kick witnessing the development of M3GAN's wickedly bratty sense of humor; clearly, the scripts for Clueless and the Chucky flicks were among the online material absorbed.
But while M3GAN is completely enjoyable in its setup and moderately enjoyable after the pricey doll's figurative fangs are revealed, I wish that Akela Cooper's screenplay had taken a deeper dive into its more troubling implications. Specifically, the reason that Gemma introduced Cady to M3GAN in the first place: to get the child off her back. We have no reason to presume that the woman doesn't love her niece (although no tears appear to be shed over the deaths of her sister and brother-in-law). Yet Gemma definitely appears to love her job more, and the movie keeps flirting with themes that would nicely play into this awareness – especially in regard to how technology has so frequently become a substitute for parenting. At one point, during a sales pitch that we hear in voice-over, Gemma talks about how having a M3GAN in every child's home would allow parents to spend more time “on things that matter.” As we hear this, we see a smiling Gemma relaxing on her couch with her laptop, her niece safely in another room being entertained by a $10,000 ambulatory iPad. It's a hilarious yet deeply unsettling image, and Johnstone's feature might have been more effective had it taken its satiric targets to their extremes – escalations that, performance-wise, Williams would likely have been entirely comfortable with. What if, for example, Gemma became aware of M3GAN's murderous ways but chose to ignore them, thinking that the convenience and peace-of-mind was maybe worth a few dead bodies?
Needless to say, that doesn't happen, and we're eventually left with something more tediously formulaic, with the title character going predictably (PG-13) berserk and Gemma learning to be a proper mom and yadda yadda yadda. But even the movie's lesser sequences are admirably executed and graced with memorable fringe touches; not for nothing did its android's weird-ass hallway dance go viral. Plus, as acted by Amie Donald and voiced by Jenna Davis, M3GAN her/itself is a delightful monstrosity who will surely return to tickle us in the future. I'm crossing fingers for a sequel titled M3GAIN.
A MAN CALLED OTTO
As everyone knows, Tom Hanks can be counted on to twinkle, and if the guy twinkled even once in director Marc Forster's A Man Called Otto, this stunningly pandering dramedy would have fallen irrevocably apart. Beginning with the poster's tagline (“Fall in love with the grumpiest man in the world”) and its accompanying image of a scowling Hanks with a scruffy kitty by his side, it was evident what kind of feel-good malarkey we were in for here: A Christmas Carol without the spectral visitors; Gran Torino without the racial epithets. Yet even though I mostly hated Forster's movie, I'll readily concede that Hanks makes it work (at least for those eager to see it), and does so by playing his grotesque cartoon's misanthropy honestly – there's no overt descent into Otto's obvious he's-mean-because-his-heart-is-broken subtext. A Man Called Otto offended me in any number of ways. Hanks' performance wasn't close to being one of them.
With its script by David Magee, this is the second screen adaptation of Fredrik Backman's 2012 novel A Man Called Ove (the first was Hannes Holm's twice-Oscar-nominated 2015 Swedish release), and you could nutshell the film's plot by saying that it's about how “the grumpiest man in the world” learns to live again through the (platonic) love of a good woman. That, however, wouldn't be nutshelling the plot; it's the plot in full. We gradually come to understand why the suburban nightmare Otto Anderson is so colossally pissed off at the world – the short answer is that Life Is Unfair – and so unaccommodating to the neighbors who treat his vitriol with misapplied “Oh, that Otto!” cheer. In truth, however, A Man Called Otto is just two hours of a miserable bastard slowly becoming a less-obnoxious bastard … though the movie goes to great, unlikely lengths to show that, as bastards go, he's an awfully P.C. one. Otto may detest the world and its stupid humans who can't simply Follow the Rules, but he's no Clint in Gran Torino or Cry Macho: His former best friends are a Black couple, he's uncharacteristically decent to the trans kid down the street, and it's his new Mexican neighbors, principally the one played by Mariana Treviño, who eventually melt Otto's cold, cold heart. Oh yeah, and frequent flashbacks remind us that the man was once an optimistic, lucky-in-love sweetheart – though in his role as the younger Otto, the thoroughly unappealing, charisma-challenged Truman Hanks (Tom's real-life son) makes that claim instantly questionable.
Between the suicide attempts grimly staged for laughs and the insufferable telegraphing of every comedic and tragic beat, Forster's movie may almost have been lab-designed to set off my gag reflex. I'll hastily mention, though, that discontent was nowhere in evidence at the packed matinée screening I attended, where my clearly engaged fellow patrons cackled at Otto's every incensed grumble, blew their noses at every maudlin narrative turn, and dutifully “Awwww!”-ed every time that darn cat appeared. It was only Hanks' professionalism and Treviño's gorgeous warmth that kept me from derisively judging them. Although the star is slumming and has to be aware of it, Hanks refuses to let the material sanctify him, and his strong actor's instincts protect him from cuteness; the soft edges are Forster's and Magee's doing, not his. And Treviño is abjectly wonderful (as is, to a less showy extent, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as her husband). A necessary life force who never feels distractingly larger than life, as well as a radiant comic spirit whose dips into pathos always feel organic, Treviño's pregnant, unflappable Marisol is deserving of a movie all her own. Her portrayer, meanwhile, deserves as many cinematic opportunities as come her way. You may expectantly show up for A Man Called Otto, but you'll likely leave wanting another audience with a woman called Mariana.