The Importance of Being Manglehorn

Pacino in Manglehorn
Al Pacino stars as a lonely locksmith whose life is transformed by a new romance in the latest offering from director David Gordon Green. Ryan Green/IFC Films

The patient is not doing well. Miss Fanny, visibly in pain, has become totally lethargic. After running several tests, the doctors discover an obstruction in her intestines: "We need to do a laparotomy immediately," they say. Alarmed by this diagnosis, her custodian, one A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino), asks what Miss Fanny's chance of survival will be. "She's a good anesthetic risk, so we're looking at about 95 percent," they reply. Marginally reassured, Manglehorn hands over his cat. The surgeons then duly extract a little key the animal had swallowed from Miss Fanny's gut.

Curiously, the man who is so badly shaken by his pet's ailment is somewhat less perturbed when his son Jacob (Chris Messina) encounters a misfortune. At one point in David Gordon Green's Manglehorn, Jacob shows up distraught, begging his father for help. Instead of assisting him, Manglehorn coldly asks, "Where did I go wrong with you? You've turned into a shark and a liar." While his hostility toward his son is to some degree understandable (Jacob is a liar), some of Manglehorn's other judgment calls are not. A long-established misanthrope, he believes humanity as a whole has wronged him. Even the kindly bank clerk Dawn (Holly Hunter) who has had the ill luck to fall in love with the cantankerous locksmith, is rudely brushed off. Another friend, the wheeler-dealer Gary (played with gleeful angst by indie filmmaker Harmony Korine), gets a beating for trying to cheer up Manglehorn by buying him a prostitute.

As the story of this small-town locksmith unfurls, we learn that Manglehorn's bitterness comes from being jilted by Clara, the woman he loved. He writes rambling letters to his ex that all come back unopened. His misery soon reaches pathological proportions, as he appears to suffer from what psychologists have dubbed "complex grieving syndrome"a vicious cycle the afflicted are neither willing nor able to break. Repetitive behavior like the letter-writing typically worsens the depression, while conjuring up the airy hope that the lost person might be made to reappear. Unfortunately, no note or novel will bring Clara back. "I'm a wounded man," he says. "There are people everywhere, but none of them mean anything to me."

It's classic sad-sack stuff, and his turn from pitiful basket case to tolerable human being is predictable. The film grinds on for almost 80 minutes before Manglehorn finally works out that he is the source of his woes. Visual quirks, layered audio tracks and double exposures that appear lifted straight from Korine's more visceral films, do little to spice up Manglehorn . The ambient soundtrack, courtesy of composer David Wingo, leaves too little of the characters' emotions to the viewer's imagination.

At the same time, Manglehorn is commendable, thanks to a performance from Al Pacino that oscillates between tempered melancholy and towering spikes of spite, and Hunter complements him beautifully. While Manglehorn takes no pleasure in being a father, lover or friend, Dawn is utterly enchanted by the mundane: "I even love sitting in the bath watching how water comes out of the faucet." She, too, has experienced loss but is mellower and more stable.

Naturally, the grumpy locksmith is too blinkered to realize that this woman is his ideal foil. Instead of showering Dawn with compliments, Manglehorn delivers a misguided accolade to his lost love: "If you wanted to know anything about Newton or Tina Turner, she'd have something to say," he says of Clara, to which Dawn retorts, "I'm sorry I'm not as interesting. Can we talk about something else now?" Manglehorn dryly responds, "Yeah, what've you got?"

Little gems like this are, sadly, scarce in Manglehorn. The film sparkles only when Dawn and Manglehorn wrestle to find some middle ground. That means that the rest of the scenes tread listlessly on and may make some viewers question why Green didn't just hand the camera off to Korine.