ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

A.J. Manglehorn (Al Pacino) is a Texas locksmith that lives a care-free, solitary life. He’s estranged from his son Jacob (Chris Messina), consumed with regret over a former love he lost years ago – of whom writes letters to daily only to have the sent back stamped “Return to Sender” – and the only companion he has, aside from the local bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter) he chats with every Friday, is his cat Franny. Looking for some change in his life, A.J. attempts to reconnect with his son and starts seeing Dawn, but the idealized life of “what could’ve been” with his lost love that he clings to threatens to derail the change he’s looking for.

After a puzzling detour into stoner comedy territory with Pineapple Express, The Sitter and Your Highness, writer/director David Gordon Green bounced back with Prince Avalanche and Joe, the latter providing a rare Bigfoot sighting like return to form for Oscar winner Nicolas Cage. Now with Manglehorn, his third post-totally baked film, Green lands Al Pacino, who like Cage is in desperate need for a good role to slip into.

Green’s one Christopher Walken or Val Kilmer away from being the filmmaker version of a rehab clinic.

For over a decade, Al Pacino’s attached himself to films that quite frankly make me wanna cry myself to sleep. Not in the good “moved with heartfelt emotion” kinda way, but more like the bad, ugly “I just saw my dog get run over by a car” kinda way. There’s S1m0ne, Gigli, 88 Minutes, Righteous Kill, The Son of No One, and Jack and Jill – the last of the six which has him playing a legendary eight-time Oscar nominee, one-time Oscar winning actor named Al Pacino…

Who falls in love for a chunky, nasally sounding Adam Sandler in drag.

Yet like a battered housewife who keeps crawling back to her drunk, abusive husband Maury Povich style, I keep coming back to each film he puts out, ready to give Mr. Pacino the benefit of the doubt every time. Why? ‘Cause he’s still Al Pacino. Even if we remove all three Godfather films from his filmography, we’re still left with Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, … And Justice for All, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, Scent of a Woman, Heat, The Insider and Insomnia. Manglehorn provides us all with a long, long, long overdue reminder of why Pacino is one of the best.

Pacino is obviously known for playing larger-than-life characters and injecting them with his trademark even-larger-than-larger-than-life performance style. It’s worked before in his best films ’cause his style served the character incredibly well, but for most of the 21st century he’s kinda turned into a caricature of himself, phoning in a whole lot of “HOO-AHH!!” just for being over-the-top’s sake. For once in a very long time, Pacino is refreshingly dialed back. At first, Manglehorn seems like just another ho-hum cranky old bastard cliche the way he mumbles out his voice-over narration or treats his customers in a frank manner, but then we get little moments here and there – whether it’s the few scenes he shares with his granddaughter, the affection he gives his cat Franny or the awkward crush he has on his bank teller – that reveal more humanity than we might be expecting from him when he first pops up onscreen.

Strangely, though, Green and screenwriter Paul Logan seem to think that’s not enough. Without spoiling anything, as the film progresses, various metaphors and fanciful visual touches, some of which work (the beehive underneath Manglehorn’s mailbox is an appropriate touch), are thrown in along with these tales of Manglehorn’s past where he’s depicted as this local legend. The visual cues are, as always, exquisitely shot by longtime Green cinematographer Tim Orr, and I’m sure the third-act stories are meant to give the character a boost, but they felt like unnecessary distractions. The strongest elements of the film are the character moments – Pacino and Chris Messina’s strained father/son relationship, the brief but effective moments with the granddaughter, and the relationship that develops between Pacino and Holly Hunter. It’s the little moments between them that actually develop Pacino’s role much better than the grander themes Green and Logan are going for.

Still, Pacino’s performance carries the film despite its flaws, and he’s able to give it his all without the flashy theatrics. It’s also a testament to Holly Hunter’s tremendous skill as an actress that she’s able to take an underwritten role, one any other lesser talent probably would’ve floundered in, and give it such warmth, heart and sympathy. Hunter and Pacino may only share a handful of scenes together, but it’s nevertheless a treat to watch these two when they’re onscreen together, particularly during a scene that could very well be the most awkward date in the history of the universe.

You’ll end up wanting to hug her and smack him for him not seeing what’s in front of him (Green has the shot linger on Hunter while Pacino rambles on about a past love, and her quiet, heartbreaking reaction is priceless).

At times, Manglehorn loses focus when it aims higher than it really needs to with its metaphors and fantastical elements, but David Gordon Green is one of the best we got today at crafting character-driven fables, and while not as good as his earlier work or his most recent films, Prince Avalanche and Joe, it still is able to hold itself together thanks to a strong, restrained performance from Al Pacino. Just when everyone thought his better days were long, long behind him – and I include myself there – he manages to pull us back in.

I give Manglehorn a B (★★★).

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