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August 5, 2015
Al Pacino is the best he’s been in years in the episodic, sometimes aimless Manglehorn. There are real flashes of brilliance in there but also some huge flaws. Pacino plays the titular character, a locksmith filled with Bogart sized regrets and a craggy world-weariness that is strangely undercut by saccharine voice overs to his great lost love, Clara. The voiceovers can’t help but make you think of the beautifully melodramatic ones in Carlito’s Way, one of many tips of the hat to Pacino’s past triumphs that are scattered throughout the film.
Manglehorn does well with strangers such as the people he helps on his rounds unlocking cars and cutting keys but has a difficult relationship with those closest to him, in particular his sleazebag son (played brilliantly by Chris Messina). The father and son scenes, however, are severely underwritten and do not ring true. Manglehorn has trapped himself in the past and protects himself by indulging in self-pity and obsessing over his past relationship.
We also get various other characters telling us more about the man and how they see him but these speeches seem contrived and don’t add up to the character we see portrayed on screen. Despite some pretty tough dialogue, Pacino gives a great performance and it is lovely to see him underplay his part so well. There are the trademark rages, we do see him break furniture but he is quite controlled and understated throughout. Some of the best scenes in the film are those where Pacino is silently at work. I hope we get to see more of this more subtle side of the legendary actor.
Holly Hunter provides excellent support as Dawn, a bank clerk that is a charming ball of positivity who has some success at peeling off Manglehorn’s shell if only momentarily. Dawn brings a weekly dose of joy into his life as he banks his weekly takings through small talk and a mutual love of their pets. This is completely shattered when they take their relationship out of Dawn’s work place and into the real world.
Pacino is often best when paired with an equally excellent actor; see the difference in his over the top performance in The Devil’s Advocate opposite Keanu Reeves, compared to his amazing “Lefty” in Donnie Brasco with Johnny Depp. The scene between Pacino and Hunter half way through is certainly the high point of the film and worth the price of admission alone as Manglehorn purposefully sabotages his chances in order to hold onto to his unhealthy obsessions (perhaps the filmmakers thought Taxi Driver was a Pacino film). The more Dawn heroically opens up to him, the more Manglehorn closes himself off. Hunter judges her performance perfectly as Manglehorn breaks her heart (and the audience’s) in just a few moments.
Filled with strange contradictions which try to create an odd, offbeat vibe, the film comes across at times as shallow and undercoooked. At its worst, it tries too hard. It is gritty and dirty with very natural performances whilst at the same time allowing itself moments of random, whimsical magic realism which when handled better and more consistently (by a Gondry or a Spike Jonze for instance) can really work but here just feel false.
Manglehorn is also jam-packed with sledgehammer symbolism which although deliberate, does not quite pay off. Later in the film, we see the character’s interior struggles manifest themselves in the exterior in a Lear kind of way but this excellent conceit comes too late to have a real impact.
By the time we get the big revelation and realise how trapped in the past Manglehorn is, it comes across as arbitrary and we haven’t been primed properly for it. A missed opportunity then from interesting director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Joe) but hopefully a hint of things to come for Pacino. He still has some more great performances to give.
Manglehorn is released in UK cinemas on August 7th