The second small Al Pacino film at this year’s Toronto Film Festival comes from director David Gordon Green, which means that it could either be a thoughtful and gently surreal art house yarn like ‘George Washington’, or a raunchy R-rated comedy like ‘Pineapple Express’. Thankfully for everyone involved, it’s the former (though the latter probably could have been pretty good too).
Pacino stars as the titular A.J. Manglehorn, a locksmith who has aged like an old leather glove – wrinkly and a little rotted, yet unexpectedly strong. At a slow and oddly lyrical pace, Green follows Pacino around as the broken character. He philosophizes to his cat, catches up with a kid he coached through Little League baseball who turned into an adult massage pimp (Harmony Korine, hilariously), has a heated lunch with his troubled son (Chris Messina), and gently flirts with a bank clerk (Holly Hunter).
Slowly, a portrait of a lost man emerges as Pacino and Green peel back the layers of the onion. His life was once filled with pain and heartbreak, but now that only slips out in occasional outbursts amidst a life of gentle silence. There’s an element of self-destruction to him as well, yet again one that has been dulled by time. Pacino keeps his performance primarily interior, his eyes in a constant daze, and his voice ravaged by age and cigarettes. It’s not quite as intense of a performance as he gives in ‘The Humbling‘, but together both films represent easily the best work he’s done in years.
That this project fell into David Gordon Green’s hands led it to becomes far more bizarre and intriguing than it would have otherwise. The director fills the background with vaguely surreal details like mimes and obese hip-hop dance artists that comment on and enhance the foreground story rather than distract from it. Odd diversions like a surprisingly graphic cat surgery with a peppy vet, or anything involving Korine’s oddball and clearly improvised performance, keep the movie vibrant and alive. This might be the story of a sad old man learning that he’s a sad old man, but Green gives it an almost dreamlike atmosphere to make things feel far more unpredictable than they should.
This is a strange movie that goes for broke often enough to fall on its face occasionally. Thankfully, those very risks also lead to transcendent moments, so it’s well worth the ride.