Deep Focus: Manglehorn
When an actor in his early prime rights himself from a tailspin, tastemakers are quick to embrace him as a comeback kid and then “brand” the phenomenon. Ben Affleck suddenly became “a Renaissance man” for directing Gone Baby Gone and Argo. Matthew McConaughey, after Mud, Magic Mike, and Dallas Buyers Club, enjoyed his “McConaissance.” When one of acting’s elder statesmen begins to get not just a second or third but a fourth or fifth wind, his resurgence fails to rouse the same excitement. Robert Redford carried All Is Lost on his back, but he was not nominated the year McConaughey won his Oscar. Redford was also marvelous in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as he’d been a few years before, in An Unfinished Life as well as his voice role for Charlotte’s Web. Without a journalistic nickname or a social-media bandwagon, or some startling change in image that would put a new face on his artistic revival, Redford didn’t receive his proper due.
So let me start an “Al-lelujah” chorus for the intelligence and élan of another elder statesman, Al Pacino, who has played a trio of burnt-out cases in a string of micro- to low-budget films, and has made each of them unique and revelatory. In Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, Dan Fogelman’s Danny Collins, and David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn, he’s as inventive, unsentimental, and inspiring as he was in the first two Godfathers or Dog Day Afternoon. I’ve already praised The Humbling as an original work of art; I found Danny Collins a warm and ebullient entertainment (its Blu-ray and DVD hits stores on June 30); and Manglehorn is an exasperating, sometimes touching mood piece. Together they comprise a portrait of the artist as an aging man.
In The Humbling, Pacino is a tragicomic stunner as a pro who has lost his vital spark. Pacino has never unveiled more of his vision of what an actor gives to his roles than he does as Simon Axler, an acclaimed classical performer whose extinct gift for interpreting Shakespeare or Chekhov or O’Neill was his only existential anchor. In Danny Collins, Pacino is improbably entertaining as a glitzy pop-rock star—blending (Fogelman has said) “Neil Diamond, Barry Manilow, and Rod Stewart.” The movie’s conceit is that Collins was once an artist and could have stayed one if he’d received an encouraging letter John Lennon wrote and sent to him care of an interviewer. Once he does get it, 40 years later, Collins starts writing his own songs again and repairing personal rifts.
In Manglehorn, Pacino is at his most idiosyncratic and audacious in the role of an everyday artisan who should have been an artist. A.J. Manglehorn, the title character, nurses a raging passion for Clara, his long-lost love, but he can’t express it in his chosen craft and spot—locksmith in a small Texas town. All he can do is write fervid, hyperbolic love letters, telling Clara, for example, that her eyes alone could save the world and stop the devil in his tracks. He doesn’t have an address for her. His mail goes out to post offices around the country and gets stamped “returned to sender.” In one of the movie’s many failed lyric flights, a beehive buzzes under Manglehorn’s mailbox; whenever he opens it, he risks being stung. You wonder why the mailman, let alone Manglehorn, would put up with it. Green and screenwriter Paul Logan pile on other symbolic or would-be magical flourishes involving mimes, balloons, backwoods break-dancers, wrecked cars, and splattered watermelon. Green’s subjective and impressionistic editing, shooting, and sound are annoyingly fancy and determinedly gritty at the very same time.
Still, Pacino makes Manglehorn’s anguish palpably real. The movie manages to be arresting when Green just lets his star rip with actors playing characters who try to lift Manglehorn up or tear him down. Manglehorn and his almost estranged son Jacob (Chris Messina) have mastered the art of wounding each other as they talk right past each other. Manglehorn, you see, coached his son in Little League. Decades later Jacob seethes over the attention his dad paid to the team’s star, Gary (Harmony Korine), though Jacob is now a rich investment manager and Gary owns a tanning salon that’s really a massage parlor. Gary is as pushy and jittery as Manglehorn is reticent. Their acquaintanceship is a catastrophe waiting to happen.
Manglehorn’s devotion to his cat sparks some genial badinage with a bank teller named Dawn (Holly Hunter), who dotes just as much on her dog. Pacino puts across Manglehorn’s furtive hunger to connect with Dawn though he fears it will disrupt his nonstop fantasizing about Clara. Sunny and sensitive, Hunter’s Dawn is like a miniature American version of Sally Hawkins’s Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. During a nightmare dinner scene, she conjures an extraordinary quality—a wounded sort of wistfulness. When Manglehorn starts singing Clara’s praises, Dawn realizes that her date can’t budge from his romantic obsession with another woman. The dialogue sounds like free association—Manglehorn says Clara could talk about anything, from Vesalius to Isaac Newton and Tina Turner, and presumably to Ike Turner, Albert Einstein, or Einstein Bros. Bagels. But the actors’ power transcends all the arbitrary talk. Nobody has played genuine solipsism and clueless bonhomie better than Pacino does here, and Hunter’s stripped-wire responses make Dawn’s mortification cut through his verbal haze, at least for the audience. After she gets up and leaves in a tough, heartrending moment, Manglehorn digs with his fingers into the food on her plate.
As Manglehorn, Pacino ruthlessly depicts the mania and denial that go into the makeup of a “hopeless romantic.” I wish Green and Logan didn’t surround his portrayal with so many flossy touches, including the delayed disclosure of a secret behind a door (it’s more soap-opera cliché than Gothic horror). Manglehorn’s emergence from an absurdly long arrested adolescence is rarely as satisfying as Axler’s blurring of theater and life or Collins’s late-life renewal of conscience. Pacino makes it fascinating nonetheless, and that’s partly because all three movies can be seen as a continuum.
Unlike the days when Pacino could go from sleek, self-contained Michael Corleone to the physically and emotionally disheveled Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino is now the least chameleon-like of great actors. What makes him unique is his fusion of old-fashioned “star” performing with the intimate emotional investment of a modern creative force. His slouched, forward-tilting profile doesn’t change from picture to picture. His way of delivering dialogue—either chewing words over with fraught deliberation, or abruptly hurling them out—has become as distinctive as Christopher Walken’s witty reverse emphases. His increasingly hoarse, smoky vocal quality tends to swamp whatever accent he adopts for a particular film. A.J. Manglehorn says he lived in Texas for 40 years but originally came from somewhere “North”; what audiences will mostly hear is part South, part South Bronx.
Yet because of Pacino’s ultra-specific and soulful acting, you could never mistake the characters in these three movies for one another. Unlike Manglehorn, Axler, for most of The Humbling, gives off an aura of awareness, even when he’s drowning in angst. He can be terrifically observant of others, and ruthlessly analytic about himself. What’s tragicomical about his plight is that all he has are his acting tools to make sense of a chaotic life. When he becomes blind to his lover’s true feelings and delusional about her actions, you know his time is running out.
And where Manglehorn’s regret drains him, Danny Collins’s rue and remorse revitalize him. Both characters wear earrings. Only Collins has a twinkle in his eye. Fogelman spun his script out of an actual event in the life of British folk singer-songwriter Steve Tilston. There’s no roots music in this movie; its charm derives from its combination of Vegas-y zest and levelheadedness. After finally receiving Lennon’s letter, Danny feels he betrayed himself by chucking his original compositions and giving into “show business.” Yet what makes him resilient as an entertainer and a man is his ultimate belief that the show must go on. Danny doesn’t immediately kick-start a second career as an artful singer-songwriter when he meets his son (Bobby Cannavale) and daughter-in-law (Jennifer Garner) for the first time in New Jersey. (His ADHD granddaughter, played by Giselle Eisenberg, takes to him readily.) He realizes that to help his “new” family, he needs to resume a greatest-hits tour that he had loathed and then canceled under the spell of Lennon’s letter. But we later believe him when he says he’s mixing his new stuff in.
Pacino gets a kick out of playing a trouper. It amuses Danny that both the manager of the Hilton in New Jersey where he sets up shop and his understandably bitter son look at this singer, with his flashy jewelry and open-to-the-sternum shirt, and call him “ridiculous.” When Danny is hopeful and bouncy, he’s got ring-a-ding-ding confidence and flair. (Pacino has repeatedly said he admires Frank Sinatra, and even lip-synched to Sinatra’s rendition of “It Happened in Monterey” in Devil’s Advocate.)
Unlike the legend of “Al Pacino, loner actor,” the Pacino of Danny Collins and The Humbling reacts with supple feeling and jazzy rhythms to supporting casts that really do swing. In Danny Collins, he and Christopher Plummer, as his devoted, illusion-free agent, create the lived-in rapport of a brilliantly dry comedy team; they don’t finish each other’s lines—they read each other’s thoughts. As the sparkling and all-business hotel manager, Bening puts a seductive spin on straight talk yet also employs comic intonations to rival Diane Keaton’s. Danny’s insistence that they speak in “patter” is funnier than their actual repartee. Bening brings out the farceur in Pacino, just as her husband Warren Beatty did when Beatty cast and directed Pacino as that dogged egomaniac Big Boy Caprice in Dick Tracy.
Levinson has said that Pacino “loves the process of acting. It’s his true passion.” In Pacino’s recent work, his processes miraculously fuse with his characters’. No actor has been more playful or frank about his calling than Pacino’s Axler in The Humbling. But Pacino is just as authoritative working a lock in Manglehorn or bringing an oldies crowd to a nostalgic frenzy with a vintage Top 40 tune in Danny Collins. And because of Pacino’s devotion to staying open and fresh, these characters come to organic fruition on the screen. The most Shakespearean of American actors seems to have taken as his motto a key line from the play that most respects elder statesmen: King Lear. Pacino embodies the concept that “Ripeness is all.”