When you want subtle and nuanced, Al Pacino isn’t the guy you call. Pacino does big and larger-than-life better than any thesp working today. But “Manglehorn” is a fragile, smaller-than-life portrait, focused on the kind of eccentric rural Southern character you might expect to encounter in one of Errol Morris’ early documentaries, or among the weathered, life-worn faces who add authenticity as cutaways in one of director David Gordon Green’s own indie features. Personality-wise, this pic feels as scruffy and disheveled as its subject, benefiting from Pacino’s name enough to attract a higher-profile release than a character actor would have in the same part.
Some folks live in the present, and some folks live in the past. That’s equally true of critics, many of whom cling to the memory of Green’s early work — quiet, evocative studies of real, unpretentious souls — despite the studio-comedy career he’s had since “Pineapple Express.” Small-town Texas locksmith A.J. Manglehorn (Pacino) also lives in the past, hung up on a gal named Clara Massey — the one who got away. More than 20 years have passed, but he still writes her letters, while shutting out those trying to get through to him emotionally today, including his big-shot son, Jacob (Chris Messina), and an upbeat bank teller (Holly Hunter) he sees every Friday.
Reverse-engineered from his unique surname, Manglehorn might as well be an old ogre, holed up in his cluttered, cave-like home with no one for company but his cat, Fanny. He’s the sort of surly recluse that scares the kids on the block, in the tradition of Boo Radley or Mel Gibson’s “The Man Without a Face,” and it might have been interesting to discover his hidden dimensions through the eyes of nosey neighborhood children. (Turns out he’s actually quite goods with kids, spending his free afternoons at the playground with his granddaughter.)
If Manglehorn is a mystery, which seems to be Green and screenwriter Paul Logan’s intent, then the film hasn’t been structured in a way to invite curiosity. At one point, we see him disappear into a private back room, but it never occurs to us to wonder what he keeps in there, and the sentimental answer seems too consistent with what we’ve learned about him already to surprise. That’s partly because Manglehorn has been constructed as a composite of past Pacino characters — mostly the tragic lost soul from Jerry Schatzberg’s underseen “Scarecrow,” though there are nods to others, from Serpico’s earrings to Scarface’s “the world is yours.” He comes with too much baggage for us to start inventing a fresh backstory, which is a shame, since there’s also enough original character detail here to deserve it.
Take Manglehorn’s job: He’s a locksmith who looks and sounds a bit like someone who used to boost cars, working now to help a desperate mom rescue her locked-in baby or to open the safe that an old couple salvaged from a house fire (offering the faintest echo of post-forest-fire “Prince Avalanche,” arguably Green’s best film). Since “George Washington,” Green has shown a gift for finding color in peripheral details, thereby enhancing the impact of the overall tapestry. That applies here, too, both in how he approaches the mundane — the visual shock of witnessing a graphic cat surgery — and the inclusion of several scenes that verge on magical realism, including a six-car pileup that’s reduced a watermelon stand to bright red viscera and a moment when a bank customer launches into a spontaneous serenade.
As often as not, however, this down-to-earth surrealism fails to connect here. What an inspired idea to show how a passing train sets the hundreds of uncut keys hanging in Manglehorn’s shop dancing — a weird musical miracle that’s surely become a routine inconvenience to him over the years — though the scene doesn’t feel integrated enough for us to judge one way or another. Likewise, there’s untapped potential for both comedy and insight in the loud character played by Harmony Korine, who’s clearly channeling Danny McBride’s abrasive shtick as Gary, a motormouth whom Manglehorn coached on the Little League team decades earlier, now running a shady massage parlor and tanning salon in town.
In recent years, Green has gone back and forth between mass-produced studio pics and organic indie dramas, though something about working with Pacino forces what could have been a breaks-the-mold character portrait into factory-made territory. Green clearly admires “Scarecrow” but doesn’t seem to have recognized what worked about it, giving Pacino a shouty, indignant scene with his son (clearly compensating for things in his own past) and a date with Hunter’s bank teller that feel too contrived to accept. But the helmer leans heavily enough on what’s worked for him before — like using David Wingo music (accompanied here by Explosions in the Sky and some forlorn harmonica grooves) to tie together abstract and untraditional cuts — to satisfy a modest appetite for eccentricity.