Al Pacino and Holly Hunter let us appreciate the silver-linings of this memorable misfire.
There is a bizarre moment in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn in which the eponymous character (Al Pacino) is walking by a multi-car wreck. Chunks of red flesh are scattered across the ground and the hoods of mostly monochrome-colored vehicles, providing a splash of color far more noticeable than the smashed fenders. The scene unfurls in slow-motion, and the voices of drivers and passengers are correspondingly distorted. But as Manglehorn walks on, it becomes apparent that the splashes of red are, in fact, watermelons, and the scene suddenly reveals itself to be an unexpected homage to Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End.
As with so many other things in the film, it’s hard to explain why this scene exists. An equally odd but narratively relevant note is that Harmony Korine plays the owner of a tanning salon whom Manglehorn used to coach in Little League. Korine, in trying to welcome Manglehorn into his drug and prostitution ring, is every bit as obnoxious as you would expect. He parallels Manglehorn’s own son, who works in finance and teeters on the edge of estrangement, but all of this comes out through one forceful dinner scene that narratively opts to tell rather than show.
The film does an awful lot of that, in fact. The story is one of a father’s regret and self-doubt for marrying a woman he didn’t love and expecting a child to make things better. This regret comes to the forefront when friendly conversation with a bank-teller (Holly Hunter) turns into light flirting and dating, and when Manglehorn’s cat, his sole relief from loneliness, must stay with the vet because of a surgical operation. Abundant in story and backstory, the script, Paul Logan’s first, is in dire need of scenes and moments. Manglehorn’s lost love Clara is fleshed out for us in a dinner-time monologue; scenes from his marriage and his relationship to his son are also drawn for us exclusively in a character’s telling or re-telling; the only parts of the backstory we actually see are Manglehorn’s work as locksmith, in a pre-credits scene, and fleeting scenes indicating his love for his granddaughter. But each of these details, far more authentic than anything else the film offers, is peripheral. As such, the call for pathos in scene after scene is answered by post-rockers Explosions in the Sky, who scored the film, and Al Pacino, who is better than he has been in quite some time (although those saying it’s among his best would do well to try a little harder to recall the vast number of great performances he’s graced us with for nearly three decades).
Does it work? Not quite. Getting to know Manglehorn from the arms-length the film keeps us at isn’t enough to conjure up the tears David Gordon Green clearly wants from us, and the oddball moments are a bit too obtuse narratively. Green’s overlapping voices, use of slow-motion, and off-beat variations on cross-cutting (as when he fades back and forth between characters) are noteworthy techniques in and of themselves, but they register things like “confusion” and “disorientation” only in the broadest sense. Where the film most succeeds is in treating us to a sincere and even-handed look at a particular kind of life, one marked by greasy spoon diners and older folks who see their small-town merely as environments rather than symbols of some particular mindset (such as traditional values or something to escape in favor of the big city’s “opportunity”). Pacino, despite his downtrodden, defeated role, manages to avoid coming off, as he has so often in recent years, as a downtrodden, defeated actor, while Holly Hunter gets the camera time she needs to make her character come alive and dignified, at least in a handful of key moments, particularly the penultimate scene. Together, they let us appreciate the silver-linings of this memorable misfire.