Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Return to Greatness: Al Pacino in Manglehorn

As the title character in David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, a lonely, irascible locksmith in a small Texas city, Al Pacino gives a display of battered grandeur. After too many years of outsize, hammy acting, usually in movies unworthy of his gifts (including the one that finally won him an Oscar, Scent of a Woman in 1992), Pacino has lately returned, somewhat mysteriously, to the understated style, dense with turbulent, conflicted feeling, that placed him at the top of his generation in The Godfather I and II and Scarecrow. I’ve sometimes enjoyed the coarse, ranting, kinetic Pacino that replaced his early deep-dyed Method persona – certainly in Dog Day Afternoon, which he was magnificent in, and also in Sea of Love and Carlito’s Way and City Hall – and I’ve loved him on stage as Shylock (a role he’d botched earlier on screen) and O’Neill’s Hughie and Teach in American Buffalo. But his work in The Humbling and now in Manglehorn has a mournfulness and contemplativeness that take us back to Michael Corleone but have deepened with age and are responsive in new ways (ironic humor in The Humbling, solitariness and haunted nostalgia and sudden, unpredictable bursts of anger) to the unremitting presence of adversity. Though their styles are widely different, what Pacino pulls off in these pictures reminds me of Burt Lancaster’s accomplishments in his late sixties, in movies like Atlantic City and Cattle Annie and Little Britches. (Pacino turned seventy-five this year.)

A.J. Manglehorn is a complicated man. He lives alone with his white Persian cat, Fanny. His son Jacob (Chris Messina), whose mother Manglehorn divorced long ago, is nearby, but their relationship is contentious, though Jacob doesn’t deny him access to his granddaughter Kylie (Skylar Gasper), who’s a bright spot in his life. There’s a decided eccentricity to his appearance – he wears his stringy hair long and sports an earring – and the stories other characters tell about his youthful daring and kindness make him out to be a local legend, an instinctual and fearless healer. These tales hover over Manglehorn like the colorful history of an aging gunslinger. In the present he attends the pancake breakfasts at the legion hall, where he waxes philosophical with other old men, and plays the slots at the casino and sometimes drinks too much and shoots off a pistol in his back yard. Once a week, when he deposits the money from his business at the bank, he flirts with Dawn (Holly Hunter), one of the tellers, who’s charmed by his old-fashioned patter. But emotionally he’s locked in the past – he listens to music on an old record player (it looks like it comes from the forties) and keeps his memories alive of a woman named Clara whom he loved and lost because he kept her at a distance. He writes long, confessional letters to her in which he says that everyone who looks at him seems to be waiting for him to rescue them. But the letters come back to him marked “Return to Sender” and he keeps them in bins along with photos and drawings of her. He invites Dawn out for dinner but when she’s blatant about her sexual desire for him, he rhapsodizes about Clara, while his date becomes increasingly uncomfortable. “I’m sorry I’m not as interesting as she was to you,” she tells him, and when he answers, “Nobody is,” she walks out on him. (Hunter is superb in this acutely painful scene.)

Holly Hunter and Al Pacino

The rambling, lyrical voice-overs that come from Manglehorn’s letters to Clara (Paul Logan wrote the script) are reminiscent of the lovely Stephen Bishop song “Madge,” in which a one-time tycoon moldering away in a retirement home can’t stop thinking about a woman from his youth he’s never stopped loving. And Manglehorn’s anger and restlessness have a Dylan Thomas quality, the sense of a man who’s raging against the dying of the light. I think it’s an amazing movie. David Gordon Green made his feature-film debut in 2000 with George Washington, about pre-teens in a depressed North Carolina town, and it wasn’t like anything else I’d ever seen; it suggested a coming-of-age movie conceived by the James Agee and Walker Evans of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I wrote about it enthusiastically, and I looked eagerly forward to his next release. But his subsequent movies have been either glum and pretentious (like Undertow and Joe) or else exactly the kind of mainstream comedies aimed at adolescent audiences that you’d expect the man who made George Washington to feel disdain for (like Pineapple Express and The Sitter) – but probably couldn’t say no to if he wanted to keep working in Hollywood. Manglehorn is as good as George Washington, and just as unusual. Green and the cinematographer Tim Orr (who shot both) give it a beautifully weird look, like muted neon, and some of the images evoke expressionist paintings, like one of Manglehorn standing at a window holding his cat while the curtains blow in the breeze. The dialogue often feels improvised, and the transitions are poetically fluid: the next scene is sometimes superimposed, both visually and aurally, on the last. Every now and then Green makes a leap into surrealism, as in a slow-mo montage of pieces of a boat being crushed and dropped into a junkyard or a horrendous traffic jam, presumably a dream, that pays tribute to Godard’s Weekend. In one scene, while Manglehorn is at the bank making his weekly deposit, a big black man (Tim Curry) strolls in and sings a spiritual and one of the tellers joins in; this interlude is as strange as anything in David Lynch.

Al Pacino and Skylar Gasper

The film is episodic but not exactly rambling; Logan’s screenplay has a clear, if subtle, dramatic arc that takes Manglehorn through a series of small disasters – with his son, with Dawn, with his cat, with Gary (Harmony Korine, in a remarkably fresh comic performance), a drug-addled contemporary of Jacob’s whom Manglehorn once coached in Little League – that he comes through more conscious of his need to connect with the present. His encounter with Gary, whose tanning salon he drops in on, only to find that the masseuse Gary assigns to him is a sex worker, is a low point for Manglehorn: he storms out and knocks Gary down outside the salon. Winded, lying on the concrete, Gary whispers, “Why do you hate everyone, coach?” Gary’s a muddle-headed screw-up but he really thinks he’s doing his old coach a favor by trying to get him laid, and Manglehorn’s fury is wildly out of proportion to the offer. It’s a weird kind of offended chastity, as if he felt he had to keep himself pure for Clara, and in that way it echoes the scene where Dawn suggests sex and he changes the subject to his vanished lover.

Jacob, an investor who lives well, isn’t easy to warm to. He’s boastful and high-handed with his dad; when they go out for dinner, he seems to be constantly trying to prove something. (Messina is a talented character actor who works all the time – he was Jane Fonda’s son on Aaron Sorkin’s TV series The Newsroom, and he had a startling cameo in last year’s Palo Alto as a man who comes on to his teenage son’s best friend. He’s good as always in Manglehorn, though it’s odd that he doesn’t have a Texas accent.) But when he gets into financial trouble and goes to his father for help, emotional as well as financial, Manglehorn is remote and unsympathetic, and your heart breaks for Jacob, who also has reason to complain about growing up with his unpredictable dad. (He tells a story about his father’s inscrutable temper that provides a counterpoint to the tales of him as a miraculous healer.) But we also understand that at that moment Manglehorn doesn’t have the wherewithal to help anybody; he’s at his nadir. (This encounter directly follows the one at Gary’s tanning salon.) We don’t see father and son together again, but at the end of the picture Manglehorn leaves a moving phone message for Jacob, recalling his joy when the boy was born, and then we see him watching Jacob with Kylie in the park from a distance. The shot is sorrowful, and there’s no hint of reconciliation, yet the way it replicates earlier images of Manglehorn playing with his granddaughter in that park implies a bond between the two men that he may be able to build on. And the movie concludes with a magic realist touch that leaves us feeling hopeful for its embattled hero, whom Al Pacino has imbued with soul.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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