MANGLEHORN * * *
Starring Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Chris Messina, Skylar Gasper and Harmony Korine. Screenplay by Paul Logan. Directed by David Gordon Green.
Pacino’s back in a big way, not that many have noticed. The Year Of Our Al 2015 began with his barely released, brutally funny Philip Roth adaptation The Humbling, followed shortly thereafter by Danny Collins, an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that had trouble finding a crowd. Now we’ve got Manglehorn, a flinty, oddball character study anchored by a low-key Pacino performance gorgeous in its eccentric specificities. I’m not sure the movie amounts to much, but I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit all the same.
Director David Gordon Green tends to confound critics by dividing his time between crass Hollywood studio comedies and low-budget curiosities set in the rural South. Despite the marquee name above the title, Manglehorn lands firmly in the second category. According to legend, this project sprung from a meeting Pacino took with Green about a SuperBowl commercial the latter was directing. After spending a couple hours trying out countless ways to deliver ad copy, the actor gave up and told him to call Clint Eastwood instead. (Pretty good advice, as anyone who saw that iconic spot can attest.)
So taken was Green with Pacino’s exploratory process that he hatched Manglehorn as a showcase for the star’s jazzy, improvisational riffs. Spun from an extremely slender script by first-timer Paul Logan (who worked as a driver on the director’s Prince Avalanche) the film stars Al as Angelo Manglehorn, a lonely, irritable locksmith puttering away his sunset years in a tiny Texas town.
Angelo’s a strange duck, stooped and waddling, peering up at a world he doesn’t seem to like very much through a pair of granny glasses perched low on his nose. Simultaneously overdressed and disheveled-looking, he never seems to stop talking — muttering stream-of-consciousness monologues in Pacino’s patented bebop cadences. Manglehorn castigates customers for sins like having messy cars, his only friend a fluffy white cat that’s recently fallen ill after swallowing a key.
By night he drinks himself into a stupor, composing florid apology letters to Clara, the long lost love of his life. Sometimes he breaks shit around the house. Sometimes he just passes out.
Angelo dotes on his toddler granddaughter but has an awful relationship with her father (Chris Messina), a financial whiz the old man seemingly can’t help but insult with every utterance. Indeed, the only adult he shows any affection at all is Dawn (Holly Hunter), a teller at the local bank with whom he pursues an awkward, fumbling flirtation. Angelo eventually works up the nerve to invite her to the town’s annual pancake jamboree – a collection of syllables Pacino’s singsong pronunciation of which might alone be worth the price of admission.
I suppose in other hands Manglehorn could have been a sweet little picture about a lovable curmudgeon patching things up with his family and getting a fresh start with the right woman. (You know, like Danny Collins.) But Green is more interested in behavior than story, and a good deal of the movie simply hangs back and observes this ornery fireplug of a man sabotaging what might be his last chances for happiness – a volcanic anger simmering barely beneath the surface.
Scenes don’t move forward so much as they shuffle sideways down improvisational detours and surreal non-sequiturs. The filmmaking is equally erratic, full of experimental flourishes like long dissolves and overlapping sound collages. Pacino and Green are very much in sync here, alive to the possibilities of the moment even if that means occasionally losing sight of a larger picture.
They’ve got an unlikely third partner in Harmony Korine, the cult auteur stealing scenes as a sleazy tanning salon owner who worships his old Little League coach Manglehorn and throws a few curveballs right back at him. I found this all rather thrilling to watch even when it wasn’t going anywhere.
Slyly constructed as a shrine to its star, Manglehorn is peppered with shoutouts to Pacino’s filmography. Dawn’s bank looks conspicuously like the one in Dog Day Afternoon, there’s some business with a stuffed animal straight out of Scarecrow, and the swooning voice-over letters to Clara could be outtakes from Carlito’s Way.
Yet despite these nods to the past, Angelo is an original creation all his own — stubborn, sad and still strangely unknowable despite all the time we spend captivated by his company. At the end of the day Manglehorn is probably more of an actor’s exercise than an actual movie, but too many seem to have forgotten that he’s one of our greatest actors.