“Manglehorn” is an uneventful dud which is all the more disappointing when you consider the talents behind it. The movie is intended as a low-key character drama driven by small moments, but it is hopelessly uneven and tedious in its aimless narrative, and its good actors mostly struggle hard to make their cardboard characters look believable on the screen. While it has a few good scenes to notice, they only remind us of how it could been better with more flesh and blood to give any recognizable sense of life to its story and characters.
Al Pacino, who looks as shaggy and tired as he did in “The Humbling” (2014), plays A.J. Manglehorn, an old locksmith who lives alone with his precious cat in some small town of Texas. He was once married, but we do not learn much about his married life or his wife who is no longer with him, and he has been estranged from his son Jacob (Chris Messina) for years, though he is on good terms with Jacob’s young daughter Kylie (Skylar Gasper).
Manglehorn frequently writes letters to a woman who was probably the only true love of his life, but he always finds his letters sent back to his home. This looks sad at first as his letters being read by Pacino on the soundtrack, but the movie does not tell us anything about who she was or how their relationship was in the past, except that he is still yearning for any reply from her even after many years. As we see more of him checking his mailbox, his stubborn act of writing letters looks more like something as abstract and symbolic as waiting for Godot, rather than a recognizable human behavior we can identify with.
When he is not at his home, Manglehorn usually goes through his mundane work routine, and he does not have many people around him besides his son and granddaughter. Gary (Harmony Korine), who was a schoolmate of his son, looks like a sort of friend to him, and he gladly takes Manglehorn to a local nightclub for some fun, but this self-absorbed doofus is more occupied with his seedy tanning/massage business. Manglehorn’s face is brightened up a bit more than usual whenever he goes to a local bank and talks with one of the employees, but he and Dawn (Holly Hunter) have been so far no more than good friends although she is very willing to come closer to him if he wants.
While Manglehorn hesitates about what may lead to his first serious relationship after so many lonely years of anger and depression, the movie often sways with a handful of offbeat touches including a growing bee hive below Manglehorn’s mailbox or a surreal scene involved with multiple vehicle crashes on the road. There is also a brief unexpected moment of romance in the middle of one scene at the bank, and we cannot help but be curious about two minor characters who openly confirm their genuine affection to each other in front of others.
Unfortunately, Paul Logan’s screenplay is too clumsy and lackadaisical to provide any solid emotional center to support these episodic moments and many others including a rather pointless sequence involved with the illness of Manglehorn’s cat. While he is not a particularly interesting person to watch as he usually looks glum and passive, we only come to get the sketchy depiction of what kind of a person Manglehorn is, and we do not get much understanding on what others see from him, either. There are a couple of scenes where other characters talk about his past, but they do not work at all because 1) we can clearly see that the movie is directly talking down to us through them and 2) these scenes do not add up much to the barebone characterization of its hero.
In case of Al Pacino, he shows us how much he can be restrained in contrast to his operatic performances in “Scarface” (1983) and “Heat” (1995), but his efforts here in this film are not served well by its lifeless screenplay. Although I did not like “The Humbling” a lot, I could see that Pacino was having a little fun with his performance in that flawed film, and that was why the movie was mildly amusing to watch, if not good enough for recommendation. In case of “Manglehorn”, he merely plods along with its dull story while occasionally flexing his acting muscle whenever it is demanded, and that is not an interesting thing to watch at all.
Like Pacino, the other actors in the film are wasted in most cases. While Harmony Korine’s distracting performance may make some of you forgive Quentin Tarantino’s bumpy acting attempts, Chris Messina is stuck with bad dialogues in his scenes with Pacino, and it is really a shame to see Holly Hunter not utilized well in the film. During one scene in which her character realizes how much Manglehorn has been held by his memories of past, Hunter conveys well her character’s pain inadvertently caused by his bumbling insensitivity, and that moment is a good example of what talented actors can do even if they are trapped inside bad films.
The movie is directed by David Gordon Green, whose previous film “Joe” (2013) was one of the best films I saw in last year. After his impressive debut with “George Washington” (2000), Green quickly rose as one of the leading American independent filmmakers, but then he baffled us with disposable films like “The Sitter” (2011) and “Your Highness” (2011), which is still one of the most awful comedy films I have ever watched during recent years. I was certainly glad to see him back in his element with “Joe” and “Prince Avalanche” (2013), and that is why I felt quite depressed by his big failure in “Manglehorn”. I hope he will soon get back on the track as he did before.