Venice Film Festival: Manglehorn

Directed by David Gordon Green

Starring Al Pacino, Holly Hunter & Chris Messina

by Ruth Thomson

It’s Al Pacino Day at the Venice Film Festival and the great man himself, looking every inch the part in black denim, man jewelry and aviators, is here on the Lido to promote two new films – Barry Levinson’s The Humbling and David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn in which he plays the titular character – a man who could learn a thing or two from Al on the sartorial stakes.

Manglehorn is an ageing small town Texas locksmith stuck in a humdrum lonely life with only his cat Fannie for company. As he scratches away at letters to an enigmatic ex called Clara we realize that he is haunted by his past and this lost love which he foolishly let slip through his fingers as a young man. A subsequent failed marriage produced an urbane son Jacob (handsome everyman Chris Messina) who Manglehorn disconnects with relentlessly at every opportunity. The only flicker of light in this bleak Southern tableau of regret is warm-hearted bank clerk Dawn (played magnificently by Holly Hunter) whose kindness towards Manglehorn offers him and us a glimmer of hope…

The film is a patchy one. There are a couple of very strong scenes but it takes at least forty five minutes to get to the first one – as Dawn serves Manglehorn a bank customer spontaneously bursts into song holding a bunch of handpicked flowers, the embarrassment of all present – ‘uh oh crazy man alert’ – gradually dissipates as we realize he’s the pretty darn romantic husband of another employee who joins him with some slick harmonies. When Dawn and Manglehorn finally make it out on a date their awkward vulnerability is beautifully matched. Even as the evening teeters precariously on the brink of disaster (we should have seen it coming with his early attempt at a compliment; ‘you look like a race horse’) you can’t help rooting for them.

It’s refreshing to see Pacino in a role that doesn’t involve a lot of macho shouting – his subtle performance is really the only reason to see this film. Despite some nice touches – the optimistic presence of a local mime, the warmth of his relationship with his granddaughter – overall the tone is confused and there are too many distractions. The presence of a multiple car crash seemingly involving a lot of watermelons and handwringing in the back of one scene is no doubt supposed to evoke Manglehorn’s despair at life but serves only to irritate. The hammy voiceover as he writes each letter to Clara sets us firmly in the territory of Hollywood schmaltz and detracts from the sadness of his situation – as does much of the soundtrack by post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. David Gordon Green has certainly succeeded in creating an impressive character piece for Pacino – no mean feat in itself, but beyond that Manglehorn is too far off the mark to really move.

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