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‘Manglehorn’ is a warmed-over character study

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Manglehorn
Written by Paul Logan
Directed by David Gordon Green
USA, 2014

Manglehorn dabbles in the strange and peculiar, but at its core, it may be director David Gordon Green’s safest and least rewarding drama yet. The film contains weird scribbles in its margins, but the narrative is overwhelmingly slight. A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino) is a grizzled locksmith and wounded soul living in small-town Texas, still aching for a woman named Clara who got away many years ago. He sends regretful letters to her like clockwork but they always find a way back to his mailbox unread. Manglehorn now spends his days cutting locks, looking after his ill cat and making kind, flirty conversation with Dawn (Holly Hunter), the friendly bank teller he visits each week.

It’s often tricky to pigeonhole Green, whose work has shifted from lyrical indie to stoner-comedy, and now, he’s found a brief resting spot in the offbeat character study. It is, however, easy to classify first-time screenwriter Paul Logan’s script which relies far too heavily on Pacino’s sad, droopy face and screen presence to hold our attention. “I’m losing hope in tomorrow,” writes Manglehorn in one of his many letters to his lost love, a clear indicator that his current routine may soon lead to his demise. He finally musters up the courage to ask Dawn out on a date but it goes south the moment he turns sour and starts reflecting on his troubled past and his yearning for Clara.

Manglehorn

Can Manglehorn finally put the past behind him and hit the refresh button? It’s a premise as old as time that finds itself with a proper dance partner in Pacino, but the formula here lacks texture and nuance, resulting in a standoffish, predictable relationship between Pacino and Hunter. Our hero is seemingly one of interest, and early on, Manglehorn has the feel of a naturalistic fairy tale, teasing us ever so slightly that it could veer off in an unexpected direction, but the film’s brief detours into the odd and surreal only offer up tonal imbalance and pummeling metaphors.

While a car crash paying homage to Godard’s Weekend and the casting of director Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers) in a supporting role as a tanning salon owner and pimp who Manglehorn used to coach in baseball are refreshing insertions in an otherwise tedious film, the script too often compounds peculiarity with failing relationships. Manglehorn’s son Jacob (Chris Messina) plays a compassionless businessman with little time for his father until he finds himself in trouble with a financial scheme. Like the film’s central awkward courtship, Pacino and Messina’s father-son dynamic is just as frustrating and without much personality.

The film is at odds with itself visually, layering scenes, monologues and music from Explosions in the Sky on top of one another in an attempt to capture Manglehorn’s chaotic psyche. Green’s trusty and long-time cinematographer Tim Orr again provides the film’s images but never conjures up anything remotely close to his best work. Green’s stylistic flourishes and recent pet themes feel copied and pasted from past films, with Manghlehorn registering as a barely functional B-side to the director’s successful but problematic Joe, which starred Nicholas Cage as another loner teetering between redemption and ruin. As the film draws to its mysterious and vaguely magical ending, the feeling of an empty promise comes full circle: Manglehorn feels like a magic show without any real tricks at all.


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