Thursday 13 August 2015

Al Pacino and Holly Hunter save Manglehorn, an eccentric drama full of symbolism but devoid of substance

Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, Harmony Korine
Running time: 97mins

Try as I might, I can’t put the silliness of the word ‘Manglehorn’ to one side. It sounds like some exotic and entirely unpleasant genital malady from a comedy sketch featuring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. “Sorry, sir, but you have a terrible case of the Manglehorn and may well require invasive surgery,” Pete – playing a doctor – would say, while Dud sat looking terrified with a bag of frozen peas in his lap. But I digress…

Al Pacino has made some odd career choices in the last few years. There was the cringe-making TV ad for Sky’s broadband service in which he played golf atop a grand piano and the bizarre rapping ‘Dunkaccino’ cameo in Adam Sandler’s crime against cinema Jack and Jill. Manglehorn, however, might just prove to be his strangest move yet.

Director David Gordon Green’s film sees Pacino as AJ Manglehorn, an ageing, broken-hearted locksmith who splits his time between fussing over a pet cat (the unfortunately named Fanny) and writing innumerable letters to Clara, the love of his life, who he has somehow managed to drive away many years before. These lengthy and heartfelt missives always come right back to him, marked ‘return to sender’. He is an odd and angry man prone to destructive fits of rage and you immediately suspect it is this that convinced his ex to ditch him. One of the few people he has any time for is Dawn (Holly Hunter), the teller at the local bank where, every Friday, he deposits his week’s takings. Despite being Manglehorn’s junior by a couple of decades, and demonstrably out of his league, Dawn finds herself attracted to him. Will their path to true love run smooth? Obviously not…

The story is extremely slight while the film around it ends up being an unconvincing rag-bag of different styles and ideas. It’s an unconventional romance one minute, a character study of a man battling depression and the effects of ageing the next, a symbol-heavy whimsical fantasy at other times. It’s also a homage to Pacino himself. The bank where Dawn works is a replica of the one in Dog Day Afternoon, the 1975 Sidney Lumet flick in which the actor played an armed robber, while Manglehorn’s words to the bank’s security guard – ‘The world is yours’ – directly reference the moment a Goodyear blimp glides ominously over Tony Montana’s house displaying the exact same message in Scarface. Yes, it’s indulgent and I’m afraid Marvel has all but exhausted my patience with movies full of ‘knowing winks’ to other things. But if any actor’s career deserves this kind of reverential treatment then it’s probably Pacino’s.

Although the great man’s performance is, for once, quite nuanced (there’s little of the bellowing and grandstanding we’ve become used to), he’s somewhat let down by the clumsiness on display elsewhere. Green (an interesting filmmaker with a varied CV, including stoner-comedy The Pineapple Express and powerful drama Joe) clearly likes his symbolism but ladles it on rather too thick here. 

Manglehorn is a locksmith who can’t ‘unlock’ his future because he believes a former lover holds the ‘key’ to his happiness. But he meets a woman called ‘Dawn’ who might be able to offer him a bright, new start. Manglehorn’s mailbox has a beehive under it to underline how much it ‘stings’ when his letters are returned by Clara. Manglehorn walks past the scene of a road accident – a number of pulverised watermelons spread all over the road – to show us the messy, beat-up state of his mind and spirit. By the time we get to a sequence in which a vet operates on Fanny to remove a key she has swallowed, you feel like shouting at the screen, “Okay, we get it; Manglehorn is emotionally and mentally blocked and he needs ‘surgery’ to repair his damaged psyche.” And don’t even get me started on an irritatingly whimsical ending so sugary I’m surprised my teeth didn’t all fall out just from being exposed to it.

Somehow, for all that, Manglehorn isn’t terrible. Pacino is Pacino – always an eminently watchable screen presence even when he’s lumbered with a gloomy, uninteresting character like this one. He’s matched by an equally strong supporting cast, of which the grievously underrated Holly Hunter is the pick. Their best scene together is one in which Manglehorn takes Dawn on a date to some astonishingly low-rent diner (the reasons Clara may have left this total lunkhead stack up higher than Ben Nevis by this point) and unfavourably compares her to his long-lost love. Instead of getting angry, Hunter is noticeably wounded as once again her dream of finding someone is ripped from underneath her. In that moment you realise life has kicked Dawn hard in the pants just as many times as it has Manglehorn. The difference is that she hasn’t been throwing her own private pity party about it for the last umpteen years. She’s a battler and a survivor and therefore exactly what her would-be companion needs… if only the hopeless old geezer could see it.

And whilst elements of the plot are ultimately fairly predictable, one thing I’ll say about Green is that you literally have no idea what is coming next. Scenes like the watermelon truck crash and the cat surgery just come out of nowhere – crazy, what-the-fuck non-sequiturs dumped into the middle of what could have been a simple romcom about two lonely people getting together in later life. You have to admire his chutzpah, if little else.

Rating: WW

Manglehorn is in cinemas and on View on Demand now


WWWW = Wonderful
WWW = Worthy
WW = Watchable
W = Woeful

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