For all its attempts to heavily overcomplicate both its narrative and its aesthetic, Manglehorn sure is simplistic and bland. In spite of the wistful philosophizing narration layered over every other scene and a heavy-handed visual approach that laboriously carries the film from one scene to the next, this is just another movie about a sad old dude searching for purpose. It’s like About Schmidt, except the humor has been extracted and the only element that can hold our interest are fancy dissolve edits.
This is one of those unfortunate indie wannabe-charmers that mistakenly believe quirkiness can carry a movie past the finish line. And maybe, if the film is experimental or nebulous, that can occasionally work. But Manglehorn really just wants to be a straightforward narrative with goofs and frills tossed in, and neither the narrative nor the frills are engaging enough to carry the day. Old-guy hero carries sickly white cat around with him wherever he goes… cute. Old-guy hero frequents low-rent bars populated by seedy types that speak in vaguely urban affectations… too cute. Old-guy hero walks into black-lit club while synthesized rap plays on the soundtrack and the limits of Final Cut Pro edit filters are tested… cuteness overload.
The “old-guy hero” of the film’s title is played by Al Pacino, and this isn’t quite one of Pacino’s phoned-in performances, though he does apply the slight, faux-southern twang to his voice like he’s done a handful of other times in the past. He’s a small-town locksmith who lives alone with his ailing cat, is quasi-estranged from his rich pig son (Chris Messina), and who writes letters to a long lost love named Clara that always come back Return to Sender. These letters are frequently layered over the film in a grizzled narration of loss and regret, illustrating that good ol’ Manglehorn (a name that, when applied to a film title, is enough to drive away many a quizzical filmgoer) is stuck in the past. Lo and behold, there’s a lovely, age-appropriate bank teller (Holly Hunter) who seems interested in this schlub in spite of his general schlubbiness. Case in point: She literally asks if the two of them should “take a bath together,” but this guy keeps going on about Clara.
Pacino is fine in the role, ably conveying the sense of time passing unceremoniously, sensing the need for a new beginning but clinging to the darkness of the past. Hunter and Messina are able to steal more good moments than the screenplay seems willing to allow them. And Harmony Korine pops up in an extended cameo as a dude Manglehorn used to coach in youth softball who now is a slimy huckster apparently running a thinly-veiled brothel on the edge of town. This character only exists so Harmony Korine can play it, but there is a certain clear-eyed authenticity to his performance that is sorely lacking from the rest of the film.
Maybe “authenticity” isn’t the issue, but rather just an inability to pick a consistent thread. At varying points, Manglehorn could be perceived as a sentimental comedy, introspective slice-of-life piece, or avant garde indie showcase. Such jarring inconsistency reeks of contradictory filmmaking, with Paul Logan’s screenplay playing it too straight, leaving director David Gordon Green to overcompensate with restless post-production tweaking intended to ramp up the energy but rendering some sequences so frantic they come off like isolated vignettes prepared by a trailer cutter. It’s true as ever that Green loves to cross-pollinate otherwise disparate styles and genres, but the gentle humor that rang true in films like All the Real Girls and Prince Avalanche now feels like aimless wheel-spinning, and the heavy philosophical tone that was transfixing in George Washington feels pretentious and discordant in shorter snippets.
As Manglehorn rushes toward its inevitable self-actualizing conclusion, complete with teary confessions, earnest reconciliations, and some out-of-the-blue surrealism, our hearts are meant to ache for this old sap who might finally have his long-awaited second chance. But it speaks ill of your would-be heart-rending story when the only thing I cared about is whether the poor cat would survive.