SXSW Review: Manglehorn



Thank you, David Gordon Green, for giving Al Pacino his best role in years.

The eminent actor appears in almost every scene of Green's latest film, Manglehorn, giving Pacino plenty of time to explore the grumpy oddball A.J. Manglehorn's every mood and motivation. Rarely are an actor and role so well matched, as Pacino plays A.J. with a perfect mix of shopworn sadness, vulnerability and simmering anger. (Known for his louder performances --- Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon and Tony Montana in Scarface are only two among many -- Pacino reminds us that he has the range to play much quieter and more sensitive types.)

A.J. is the central figure in a story of loss and regret. An aging locksmith, he spends lonely days in his cluttered shop with few customers. Long divorced, he spends equally lonely nights with his cat. His self-absorbed son, Jacob (Chris Messina), has no time for him, and he rarely sees his granddaughter, Kylie (Skylar Gasper).

In his lonelier moments -- there are many -- A.J. obsesses about a lost love, Clara (Natalie Wilemon). She wasn't his wife and their relationship ended long ago, but Manglehorn tells us little more about her. Whoever Clara is, A.J. remains passionately in love with her; he still writes her letters.

The highlights of A.J.'s life seem to be his Friday trips to the bank, where making a deposit is a good excuse to flirt with bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter). He also hangs out with Gary (Harmony Korine), a much younger man A.J. once coached on a softball team. A schoolmate of Jacob, Gary now owns a sleazy tanning salon/massage parlor and idolizes A.J. for his legendary (with the emphasis on legend) exploits as a young man.

Like Green's previous two features, Prince Avalanche and Joe, Manglehorn has the barest of plots. (The three are an Austin-made trilogy of sorts, with a central theme of fading masculinity.) There is a subplot about A.J.'s sick cat, and Dawn becomes a potential love interest. But the movie is mostly about A.J.'s awkward interactions with the world and his halfhearted attempts to put Clara behind him, a difficult thing for a socially inept, obsessive malcontent who has trouble making friends. (A.J. has a knack for storytelling, a talent that might win him a few friends if his stories weren't so off-putting.)

Fortunately, A.J. is such a compelling character -- and Pacino is such a compelling actor -- that Manglehorn's lack of a narrative arc isn't a problem. Green is a master at telling a story without relying on an actual story; between his astute direction, Paul Logan's sharp, often funny dialogue and Pacino's acting chops, the narrowly focused and leisurely paced Manglehorn seems like a broader and brisker film than it actually is.

Manglehorn is also visually stunning. A.J.'s house and shop are dark and dingy -- as Green said at the SXSW post-screening Q&A, the house looks like it smells funny. But everything else pops with gorgeous color, from Austin's urban jungle to A.J.'s favorite cafeteria (being old, he complains about the prices) to the seedy rooms in Gary's tanning salon.

While tragic, Manglehorn is quirky, surreal and funny enough to avoid being a depressing film about a depressed man. Most of the odd moments work well, although a surreal scene of a massive traffic accident makes little sense and seems out of place; so do a few other strange moments, such as when a bank customer and teller break into song. More successful is Green's generous use of non-actors in minor roles.

Pacino of course steals the show in Manglehorn. But Hunter is also terrific as Dawn, a warm-hearted woman every bit as lonely as A.J., but far more socially graceful (almost anyone would be) and eager to enjoy life. Korine, on the other hand, tries too hard to make Gary a funny character; shrill and pushy, he's more annoying than amusing.

Manglehorn isn't as strong as Prince Avalanche or Joe, but it's a fine film and a terrific vehicle for Pacino (whose career could use one). It's a worthy addition to David Gordon Green's body of work, another small story of great significance.

Austin/Texas connections: Manglehorn was shot in Austin and features many local actors in minor roles. David Gordon Green lives in Austin.