Venice 2014: 'Manglehorn' review

★★★☆☆
David Gordon Green has to have one of the most eclectic directorial résumés of recent times. From stoner comedies like Pineapple Express (2008) and Your Highness (2011) to his work on hit TV show Eastbound & Down and striking debut George Washington (2000), Green has graduated into spiky character studies of Americans leading lives of quiet and not so quiet desperation. Last year he was on the Lido with Joe (2013), a marvellously gritty Southern noir which teased out one of Nicolas Cage's best performances in years. This year, Green returns in competition with Manglehorn (2014). Al Pacino plays the title character, A.J. Manglehorn, a seasoned locksmith by profession and a serious man.

Manglehorn lives alone with his sick cat Fanny, writing endless letters to an idealised love that he lost sometime in the presumably distant past. These letters supply us with a voiceover of weary and almost constant complaint, berating his loss and his ruined life. Manglehorn enjoys a budding friendship with bank clerk Clara (Holly Hunter), and we're given the impression that he was once a more inspirational character. Local businessman/pimp Gary (director Harmony Korine) is also wont to wax lyrical about the  achievements of his old baseball coach. This is one of the problems with first-time screenwriter Paul Logan's script. Though we're frequently told of Manglehorn's former glories - even his estranged son Jacob (Chris Messina), a commodities trader, has a yarn to tell - we never see this side of the man.

Green's latest is another sturdy character study and Pacino fleshes Manglehorn out with sensitivity, pathos and a real attention to detail. The locksmith is always famished, eating at cheap restaurants and returning for seconds. He's also a miser, muttering about the prices, and he's adept at using his storytelling and charisma to turn away companionship rather than invite it. In a wonderful scene, he yarns away with some old fellows at a pancake lunch but the story he captivates the table with is one of unrelenting bleakness and tragedy. "An act of God," one of his listeners valiantly tries. "There is no God," the locksmith insists. A date with Clara also holds out the possibility of some human contact, but Manglehorn scuppers his chances (probably deliberately) eulogising on his lost love, of whom the audience and Clara are now heartily sick. He does have a wonderful rapport with his granddaughter Kylie (Skylar Gasper) and their scene is one of the highlights of the film, showing the joy Manglehorn can find in life if only he'd open up.

The main problem is that there's no central narrative as such. Manglehorn's cat gets worse, then gets better. Manglehorn himself seems to get sadder. His son's star is waning. But this is just life going on, not a plot as such. To compensate Green and cinematographer Tim Orr always keep the visuals interesting, with striking locations - including Manglehorn's cluttered locksmith shop - beautiful composition and overlapping dissolves but at times this can become too tricksy as the soundtrack takes on the attributes of cacophony and dialogue and voiceover blends with indie rockers Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo's score. The style, one senses, is overcompensating for a narrative slackness that has nowhere particular to go other than anti-climax. That's not to say that Manglehorn isn't a good film - it is. It's just that Pacino's seasoned performance deserved a great film.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale @drjonty

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