“I’ve got real pain in my heart,” narrates aging and lonely locksmith A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino). He’s writing a letter, one of the many hundreds of letters he’s written over the years, to a woman called Clara. “You could have stopped evil dead in its tracks,” he continues. He then signs, seals and delivers the letter only to have it stamped Return to Sender a few days later along with all the others. Clara is the one who got away, the one that Manglehorn has never forgotten. It’s been twenty years and he won’t stop writing to her.
It’s fair to say that director David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn is an odd film, as odd as the title character. Here’s a man who generally keeps to himself. He still works. He runs his own, small business in a small town in Texas, and, with the exception of his customers or the friendly bank teller (Holly Hunter) who shines that little bit more when he visits the bank, he keeps to himself.
He’s the guy that the neighborhood kids might mistake for being the grumpy ol’ man; the curmudgeon who stands framed at the window holding a cat, forever looking out. But he’s not, not really. He’s simply sad. He’s sad for the choices he’s made, the mistakes that followed, and more than anything, he’s pained because of the absent Clara, plus he’s crushed every time a letter he’s written is returned. At one point you see him sniff the envelope of a returned letter in the hope that maybe Clara actually touched the paper before sending it back, unopened, and left a faint scent.
Most of his conversations are with his beloved cat. When he arrives home each day he talks extensively to his pet. It’s like a running commentary on everything he’s doing. He was married once, though he admits he never really loved her. He even has a son and a granddaughter. His son is a fast-talking, hot-shot business guy called Jacob (Chris Messina) who trades commodities with giants. Manglehorn describes him as a “shark.” “It’s never easy with you,” Jacob tells his dad when the elderly man turns up for an uninvited visit to his son’s office. They don’t get along.
Besides his cat, the one person who genuinely seems to enjoy talking to the locksmith is Dawn (Hunter) the perpetually upbeat bank teller. She has great affection for the old man and at one point even goes on a date with him. “I love taking baths and watching the water come out of the faucet,” she eagerly confides over the dinner table, then adds, “Let’s take a bath together.”
But it’s that memory of Clara and the regrets of a relationship that might have been but never was that gets in the way of any real happiness for Manglehorn. He just won’t let go.
Manglehorn has the strangest, off beat rhythm to its telling. We catch glimpses of his life and occasionally we see some of those odd, practically surreal occurrences that surround him, yet nothing has a real connect, either to him or the story. While walking home, Mangelhorn passes a multiple car pileup, the crushed and twisted metal of the vehicles covered in what might at first glance look like blood but is revealed to be crushed watermelons. The scene is shot in slow motion as if Manglehorn is walking through his own dream. Then there’s the scene in the bank where a customer enters and breaks into an unaccompanied, heartfelt love song for no apparent reason, only to be accompanied by a bank employee turning the moment into an impromptu and very well sung duet. “Not bad,” says an approving Manglehorn to Dawn the teller once the singing stops. But, like that crash of the cars, what it has to do with anything is difficult to say, and the film is giving no clues.
The best scenes are those moments between Pacino and Hunter, particularly at the dinner date where Hunter’s character mistakes Manglehorn’s interest in her as something more than friendly. He’s there because it’s pleasant to talk to her, plus it’s good company. She’s there because she thinks it might be the beginning of something special. But when the conversation turns to Clara, the one that got away, the friendly teller is crushed.
The oddest scenes, besides those two surreal moments, are the exchanges between a one time drug addict now small time massage parlor entrepreneur with a motormouth called Gary (film director Harmony Korine) who in his youth was coached by Manglehorn in the little leagues. But Gary has no real connect with anything else that’s happening in the film or in Manglehorn’s life. Ultimately, the character simply annoys.
Perhaps the oddest thing of all is the casting of Pacino himself. Playing against type, every move he makes, every action he takes is quiet, slow and deliberate. Had an unknown or lesser known actor played the central character there would be little to no interest in the film at all. Pacino makes Manglehorn interesting only by default. Without him there’s nothing.
Ultimately, Pacino may make the sad sack likeable but in the end, like those closing moments involving Manglehorn mistakenly locking himself out of his van, a nearby mime artist and an invisible key, the oddly whimsical film is more puzzling than cute.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 97 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)