Specialness has always had a vaulted place in the movies. It’s a classic hero’s journey: the discovery that you are destined for greatness or, in the case of epic love stories, the quest for “the one.” It’s an alluringly romantic concept, but its real-world applications prove far more complex. For how can everyone strive to the unrealistic standards of being “special” when most are destined for mediocrity?
David Gordon Green’s Manglehorn turns a gently critical eye to this notion of “specialness”—and the result is delightfully offbeat, in no small part thanks to its central performance. Al Pacino is A.J. Manglehorn, a sad-sack aging ex-con who mourns the life he could have had with his lost love Clara. Holding down a dead-end job as a locksmith, Manglehorn is surrounded by relics of disappointment, including his son by the wife he never loved (the always welcome Chris Messina) and a former student-turned-grimy-little-pimp (a hilariously grimy little Harmony Korine). Punctuated by letters written (and narrated) by Manglehorn to Clara, he holds onto an idealized version of an alternative life, which may cost him future happiness in the form of Dawn (Holly Hunter).
As an entire generation of venerated actors have settled into their golden years, it’s become something of a subgenre for them to be cast as aged-versions of their popular onscreen personas (see Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt or Bill Murray in anything post-collaboration with Wes Anderson). With the inclusion of Pacino, Manglehorn appears poised to join these ranks. But Green and his lead deliver something far more refreshing. Pacino is pleasingly odd as the title character, a man once brimming with verve—as told to us by figures from his past (most memorably Korine’s Gary) who recount stories of Manglehorn’s legendary “specialness.” But as years of regret have caught up with him, Manglehorn struggles to find energy to feel anything other than barely contained frustration and rage. Pacino is the best he’s been in well over a decade.
Green fully embraces Manglehorn’s utter resignation, tapping into the everyday minutiae of mundanity in what are the best moments of the film. The shrill sounds of an alarm clock—a harbinger of yet another dissatisfying day—or an excellent medical sequence involving Manglehorn’s beloved pet are turned into set-pieces significantly more compelling than so much of the empty spectacle currently dominating the multiplex. Manglehorn is modest in scope, but ambitious in execution. Green delivers a charmingly idiosyncratic piece of storytelling, cat surgery and all.