If nothing else, David Gordon Green deserves credit for having the most eccentric career of any director of his generation. After kicking down the door with his award-winning art house debut ‘George Washington‘, he somehow also ended up making ‘Pineapple Express‘. Now Green’s primary interest seems to be taking once beloved actors who have devolved into self-parody and finding ways to rein them in and make them shine again. Last year, he worked wonders with Nicolas Cage in ‘Joe‘, and now he’s managed to get some subtle acting out of Al Pacino for the first time in decades with ‘Manglehorn’. It’s almost as if Green is doing a public service by rescuing these great actors from themselves.
Pacino stars as the titular Manglehorn, a burned-out locksmith. He’s found a way to exist almost as a ghost, shielded from the world. He was rather horrible to his ex-wife, leading to a strained relationship with his son (Chris Messina). The love he never gave to his family has been saved entirely for an ex-girlfriend he continues to write long adoring love letters to, even though they’re always returned to his mailbox weighed down by a beehive (symbolism!). The only thing he seems to care for is his cat, though he has built up a vaguely flirtatious relationship with a bank teller (Holly Hunter) that could blossom into something more if only he’d give her a shot. He also has a fan in his son’s childhood friend turned small town pimp played by, of all people, Harmony Korine. Yes, this is one of those movies about a closed-off old soul learning to feel and embrace the world before it’s too late.
Truth be told, the screenplay for ‘Manglehorn’ isn’t very good. It’s pretty obvious and at times even a little tedious. However, the movie works in spite of its script thanks to the playful experimentation that Green slathers all over the production and the screen. The biggest gamble was of course casting Pacino, and it’s one that really paid off. By playing a character too frightened of emotions to embrace them, the actor doesn’t have the option of flying off the rails into Screamin’ Al territory. Instead, he has to embrace the quiet and internal acting of his early days. His battered face and hangdog expressions speak wonders, while those eyes that Pacino so memorably played for pain in ‘The Godfather Part II’ work overtime for the first time in years. He’s wonderful in his mumbly role, especially when paired with Hunter or Korine.
Watching Pacino and Hunter play out a painfully bad date is a masterclass in acting that brings out the best in the two performers who haven’t been at their best for quite some time (Hunter because she’s been tragically underused and Pacino because he’s been tragically overused). When Pacino and Korine share the screen, it’s a deeply bizarre improv joy with Korine spitting out all sorts of eccentric nonsense and Pacino playing along in such sad and funny ways that it’s impossible to tear your eyes from the screen.
Apart from that brilliant central casting and careful collaboration with his performers, Green also plays around the edges of his scenes to create a surreal and beautiful world for his actors to inhabit. The script might bind the film to a straightforward redemption narrative, but Green has little patience for it. His camera lingers on various faces and behaviors of side performers who are clearly non-actors. Scenes like a man suddenly bursting into seductive song in a bank derail the movie in wonderful ways. Green has always shared Terrence Malick’s knack for finding poetically surreal moments in mundane small town reality, and he finds quite a few of those here.
Whenever the filmmaker is eccentrically experimenting or nursing subtlety out of Pacino, ‘Manglehorn’ can be a rather wonderful viewing experience. Clearly, the filmmaker and actor are a strong team. It’s just a shame that they were weighed down by such an ultimately dull script.