Can there be too much Al Pacino? Not in Venice, apparently, where he was the man of day three with two major films premiering – Barry Levinson’s “The Humbling” and David Gordon Green’s “Manglehorn.” But as much as I love the guy, after his two performances as old, sad, deranged men I was ready to kill myself and after the two press conferences I was ready to kill him.
“The Humbling” is based on the Philip Roth novel, to which Pacino long-ago bought the rights. You can understand that, given that the lead character, Simon Axler, is an aging – and fading -- star of the Broadway theater who is no longer always sure of what is real and what is acting. As with all things Axler/Pacino, this confusion is rather epic, resulting in a swan dive into the orchestra pit that lands him first in a hospital and then a mental institution. “Did that feel real for you?” he asks a nurse. humbling
After that it’s pretty much home stay, trying to get back to normal. It does and doesn’t help when Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) shows up. The daughter of old friends, she has carried around an infatuation with him since a little girl, never mind that she’s a lesbian and he’s as old as the Connecticut hills. Needless to say, they become a couple, fending off doubts, her jealous women’s college dean lover, her ex-gf-cum-trans-gendered friend Prince, and of course her parents. Diane Wiest is well-cast as Pegeen’s very annoyed mother, who was once Axler’s lover. Of course she was.
At first, all is great – how could they not be with Greta Gerwig, who’s got delight in her genes. Meanwhile, Axler-Pacino is all shuffles and sideways glances and too much hair, not to mention too much bad back. But he’s not enough famous actor for her – that’s what the crush was all about, after all -- and she talks him into going back on stage. On the cusp of his return as Lear, she effectively abandons him, becomes a harridan. Despite efforts to foreshadow this shift, Pegeen’s schizophrenia seems unwarranted; perhaps Gerwig simply isn’t able to pull this duality off but in any case it’s representative of the film, which works well only in fits and starts.
Shot over 20 days here and there, in Barry Levinson’s home no less, “The Humbling” seems like an idea that might have looked better on paper – indeed, in the pages of Roth’s novel. Some wag already beat me to the title “The Bumbling,” though I intended it more as a descriptor for Axler than for the film itself. In truth, it’s not that bad, and will likely find a significant audience. But it just never feels fully there, despite all the talent involved. One could be excused for walking away from seeing it and wondering, “Did that feel real for you?”
In the press conference for “Manglehorn,” in one of the rare moments when Pacino wasn’t expounding endlessly, before mercifully saying “Oh listen to me go on; I put a blanket on everything” and then going on further, director David Gordon Green was asked why he chose Pacino for this role. His answer says a lot – perhaps a little too much – about his film: He had met Pacino, who he greatly admired, and wanted to work with him – it was as simple as that. He’d had this character in mind, and he and his writer Paul Logan set to work to make it happen, throwing in a bunch of references to Pacino films from the past. There is much to like about “Manglehorn” but one’s vague feeling that something is a bit off can perhaps be tied back to this enthrallment, and indeed to the casting itself.
A.J. Manglehorn is a sad sack Texas locksmith who manages to push everyone who loves him away, notably Clara, a former lover who he let get away from him and to whom he repeatedly writes apologetic letters that are returned. Then there’s his son Jacob, (Chris Messina), an investment guy who Manglehorn doesn’t much like; or if he does, Jacob would be the last to know it. Finally, there’s Holly Hunter’s bank clerk, who woos Manglehorn on a date, which he ruins by talking solely about how wonderful Clara was. Manglehorn, in other words, is incredibly annoying.
He also seems just a tad unreal, at least with Al Pacino playing him, with, btw, the same hair he has in “The Humbling” -- is it in his contract that he gets to keep his no matter what? Is it really believable that Manglehorn takes his fluffy cat on walks and fishing with him? Is it really believable that he obsesses madly over this cat? Is it really believable that he keeps in his locked garage a – well, that would be a spoiler, though it’s so obvious as to be a real unsurprise. Is the last scene really believable – would anyone do that? You be the judge but I vote ‘no, not really.’ Though with a non-movie star playing him he’d have more of a chance. Pacino’s talents and atmospherics don’t really bring much to the table, frankly. Does Manglehorn the character really need the shuffling, the side-long glances, the dark intensity? Maybe just the opposite would give him life.
Again, “Manglehorn” the movie has a lot going for it. Holly Hunter, for one, Harmony Korine as an obnoxious salon owner who reveres his former little league coach, for another. My favorite moment in the film is his, when he explains to a masseuse why Manglehorn is so special – never mind that this man has just responded insanely to the suggestion that he might enjoy the masseuse’s offerings. Would anyone today really respond this way? Maybe if you wanted to see a great actor get his chops off, yeah – perhaps this was one of those moments referencing a former Pacino film.
Of course Pacino is a great actor, but sometimes greatness is not what’s needed. Could be just the opposite.