'Manglehorn': Film Review

Biennale di Venezia
Nobody stands a chance with this script

Al Pacino stars as a small-town locksmith in a self-imposed emotional prison in David Gordon Green's intimate character portrait

The mix of limpid naturalism and lyricism that has often distinguished David Gordon Green's indie films slides into sentimentality — or worse yet, whimsy — in Manglehorn. Those cloying excesses are even represented by their professional flag-bearer, the fully costumed mime artist. And while few things should trigger anyone's rage disorder like a backwater Marcel Marceau, the simmering title character played by a mostly subdued Al Pacino gives the guy a pass. Twice. It's hard to do likewise for Paul Logan's ham-fisted script, which painstakingly spells out every metaphor, whether it's spoken or visual.

One such loaded symbol is A.J. Manglehorn's line of work. He's a locksmith in small-town Texas, which means he's responsible for both the locks and the keys to his "own private prison." That emotional jail cell is a place where he lives with his numbness, his anger, his furball cat Fanny and his past mistakes, aired in voiceover letters written to Clara, the one true love that he screwed up. Those letters invariably are returned to sender, where the sting of rejection is represented by a small bee colony on the mailbox.

Manglehorn's solitude is conveyed in an uncharacteristically internalized performance from Pacino. But every opportunity for a quiet character study exploring the complexities of human connection is trampled by Logan's leaden dialogue, by those pervasive voiceovers, or by the beautiful but often far too pointed widescreen images of Green's regular cinematography collaborator, Tim Orr.

The tenderness of Manglehorn's letters ("I'm a wounded man, Clara") plays in contrast to his low opinion of the human fauna that surrounds him. He's courteous with his customers, as seen in a handful of house calls that give the portrait some welcome texture. But despite his good intentions, infrequent encounters with his grown son, Jacob (Chris Messina), a smugly stereotypical commodities trader, tend to turn sour. And despite the hero worship of Gary (Harmony Korine), a ballplayer back when Manglehorn was coach, he generally finds that a little of the logorrheic businessman/pimp goes a long way. Jacob's 6-year-old daughter, Kylie (Skylar Gasper), is the only person who doesn't rattle grandpa's nerves.

The one real window of cautious hope in Manglehorn's existence is a sunny bank teller named Dawn (geddit?), played by Holly Hunter, who like all of the cast here, deserves better. Every Friday when Manglehorn comes by to deposit his earnings, they exchange pleasantries about their ailing, aging pets. (The constipated cat has swallowed a key, for Christ's sake.) When Dawn accepts a casual invitation to join him at — wait for it — a "pancake jamboree," a flicker of romance is born. But Manglehorn sabotages any tentative overture even before knocking on her door for their first official date.

This is Logan's first produced screenplay, and its immaturity is written in neon. But that's no excuse for Green and actors of the caliber of Pacino and Hunter buying it wholesale.

The signposts along the journey out of Manglehorn's black hole of maudlin regret toward his inevitable second chance are beyond obvious: Fanny's graphically covered intestinal surgery; Jacob's confused cry for help; an improbably late discovery of what goes on at Gary's tanning salon (which makes crusty old A.J. seem like the most naïve guy on the planet); the unlocking of a charred safe salvaged from a fire. That's not to mention a multiple-car redneck pileup that yields a mile of chunky watermelon carnage. (Not kidding.) Even the exorcism of Clara and the boat on which Manglehorn planned to sail away with her is as literal as it gets.

All of which is too bad, because there's a stirring gentleness in the early scenes, along with Orr's seductive visuals, accompanied by the symphonic post-rock of Texas band Explosions in the Sky and the delicate scoring of David Wingo. But those elements just make you wish someone had made a stronger case for subtlety. Narrative muscle is also in short supply in a film whose default position is dreamy meandering.

Pacino is certainly committed to the role, and this is by no means one of his blustery turns. However, the writing provides his character with no backstory, choosing instead to let the audience fill in details of the past transgressions that led him into darkness. But the film is so psychologically crude that such considerations become a thankless task.

Korine is manic and amusing, playing off his own bad-boy persona until the character is assassinated by a ludicrous speech extolling Manglehorn's virtues as "a man of miracles." Hunter rises above it all to the extent she can, though no actress should be obliged to play a woman's desperate need for love and companionship so nakedly.

Since stepping away from studio work, Green has been on an agreeable track, with his oddball Beckettian two-hander, Prince Avalanche, and his soulful Nicolas Cage redemption bid, Joe. But Manglehorn is a wrong turn.

Production companies: Muskat Filmed Properties, in association with Rough House Pictures
Cast: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine, Chris Messina, Skylar Gasper
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: Paul Logan
Producers: Christopher Woodrow, Molly Conners, Lisa Muskat, David Gordon Green, Derrick Tseng
Executive producers: Brad Coolidge, Melissa Coolidge, Todd Labarowski, Danny McBride, Jody Hill
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Richard A. Wright
Costume designer: Jill Newell
Editor: Colin Patton
Music: Explosions in the Sky, David Wingo
Sales: CAA, Cinetic, WestEnd Films

No rating, 97 minutes