Manglehorn Review (2015) | Can't Stop the Movies
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Manglehorn (2015)

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Manglehorn is an ex-high school baseball coach in a small town where he now works as a locksmith. Still hung up on an old relationship, he spends his time restlessly ambling around town, caught somewhere between ambivalent sadness and impotent anger. David Gordon Green's latest features a good performance from Al Pacino, who's working from an uneven and clueless screenplay by Paul Logan.

Keys keys everywhere a keyI can't figure out David Gordon Green. His jump from super-indies like George Washington and All the Real Girls into Pineapple Express and a stint directing episodes of Eastbound and Down showed an ability to imbue aggressively improper comedy with a level of character darkness that lent depth without too much seriousness—it was a shift not telegraphed by his earlier films, but not altogether surprising either. Then the one-two punch of 2013's Prince Avalanche and 2014's Joe suggested a return to form: small, personal films characterized by tight formal control over a story engineered to play as naturalistic and meandering. This was promising, as Joe turned out to be one of the best films of the year.

All this contextualizing is an attempt on my part to qualify what has, since I watched it a few days ago, become a pretty intense distaste for Green's newest film, the Al Pacino-starring Manglehorn. Things start off well enough: Manglehorn runs a locksmith shop in a generic small town, where he's friendly and familiar with everyone he encounters—everyone from the bank tellers to old students greet him as he's out and about, referring to him simply as Manglehorn or “Coach,” exchanging generic baseball cliches. He has the ambling, soft incorrigibility of a lonely grandpa. An early scene sees him taking a call to help get a woman's child out of her locked car, and he casually, almost parentally lectures her on how she should do a better job of keeping it clean (“you gotta take care of these things,” patting the hood).

Some of these early sequences remind me of Ramin Bahrani. Green is able to say a lot about his characters by simply observing their routines and the way they act and react in mundane daily situations. Manglehorn goes to the bank and flirts sheepishly with his regular teller (Holly Hunter), he goes to his shop and makes a few keys, he returns home and looks for his sick cat Miss Fanny, talking to her while he gives her some food. Then he goes into a small room in the back of his house (which, creepily, is always locked, and deposits a letter marked “Return to Sender” that he pulled out of the mailbox earlier in the day.

Manglehorn and the Bees

With his letters always coming back marked "Return to Sender," it's like Manglehorn risks getting stung every time he opens his bee-infested mailbox. You know, metaphorically.

Throughout the rest of the film, we'll see (and hear in voiceover) Manglehorn writing additional letters. They're addressed to an ex-lover—who we at first think may have died, and eventually come to understand simply, and wisely, left Manglehorn earlier in their lives—and they're so shamelessly, sweepingly romantic that I wondered for a short time if the film was going to be a poorly marketed satire. Pacino mumbles through syrupy lines like “I would give everything just to have you look at me one more time” with enough conviction that we believe him, and here's where the film's major problem starts. This is a sad bastard movie where the guy's a little too sad, and a little too much of a bastard.

This second part is demonstrated when we follow Manglehorn out to the local casino, where he sits alone playing the slot machine (scenes like these always remind me of Lewis Black's joke that a better alternative to playing slots would be to take a bucketful of quarters up to your hotel room and flush them down the toilet one by one). He's recognized from across the room by a previous student named Gary (played unfortunately well by Harmony Korine). Gary is the type of person who rolls out the phrase “I got this mulatto friend who won the lotto,” and we're not surprised so much at his apparent unawareness that this is an offensive term as that he knows the word in the first place.

Manglehorn at the Casino

Manglehorn spends a lot of time in places he doesn't seem to enjoy.

Manglehorn tells him, “I like you Gary, I do”—which is baffling—“but I just want you to leave me alone right now.” If the selection of those able to fill the "old friend" role in Manglehorn's Interruption Trope—in which he gets unexpectedly interrupted by an old friend so he can push them away in order to demonstrate his self-imposed, martyred loneliness—has dwindled down to the likes of Gary, then this guy's having a rough go at things. Manglehorn wakes up the next day to a partially trashed apartment, chairs and tables flipped over in an apparent drunken rage, and tries to coax Miss Fanny out of hiding. I think the point of the cat is to show us that at heart Manglehorn is a good person, as no bad person has ever cared for a cute animal.

If the film was just concerned with showing a miserable man in the last stages of a wasted life, Pacino's performance could wield enough power to recommend. But Green and screenwriter Paul Logan have this supremely miscalculated (and wretchedly sentimental) sense that Manglehorn is a kind of fallen saint, weighed down by a mistake he can't undo. There's a common two-scene structure employed throughout: Manglehorn and another character will fight, then in the following scene the character will relate a story about Manglehorn in his prime, always presenting him as an almost magical, mystical figure. But this is conveyed purely through tone and formal trickery—the stories themselves are perpetually unremarkable. At one point his semi-estranged son shows up at his house for help, and the advice he flippantly delivers, as if irritated he should even have to say it, is that it's every man for himself (“we're all alone, we're invisible”). Afterward his son tells a story about a horrible, violent fight they had in his youth, voice inflected with wonder as he relates the punchline, which is basically that Manglehorn cleaned up the house after the fight to hide the mess from his wife.

Manglehorn With His Cat

Manglehorn weirdly takes his cat everywhere so we'll find him endearing.

Think about the message Manglehorn is sending: here's a guy who blew his chance with the woman he loved (who he's idealized to a nearly comical extent) and chose to become a cliché, booze-ridden and responsible to no one and nothing except his routine of regret—and he still gets to be seen as this incredible human being, who maybe, if we're all so lucky, will one day again bestow his remarkable spirit upon us.

At one point we see the piles and piles of returned letters Manglehorn has written over the years, and by focusing on this constant rejection the film is engaging in a more insidious philosophy than the one it wears on its surface: Manglehorn can be a selfish loser—it's not his fault, for he is Sad—but the voiceless ex-lover bears all the implied responsibility. If only it weren't for her crippling power over him, her refusal to give him a second chance, he'd be that great guy everyone keeps talking about.

This isn't an uncommon formula for such a film, but Green should know better, and his shamelessly sentimental pandering reveals a basic lack of confidence in the underlying story. Here's another, shorter interpretation of the film's plot: whiny alcoholic harasses his ex via mail.

Manglehorn posterManglehorn (2015)

Directed by David Gordon Green.

Written by Paul Logan.

Starring Al Pacino, Holly Hunter, and Harmony Korine.

Posted by Kyle Miner

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