Probably the only director of this generation who’s ever going to be produced by both Terence Malick and Judd Apatow, David Gordon Green has proven time and again that he doesn’t need much plot to tell a riveting story. From the kids of “George Washington” to the stoners of “Pineapple Express” to the highway workers of “Prince Avalanche,” Green allows his characters to come alive through subtle revelation and interaction, creating indelible portraits of seemingly run-of-the-mill folks.
His powers serve him well in “Manglehorn,” a film that offers Al Pacino in what will be remembered among his finest latter-career performances. The low-key, dialed-down acting that Green has elicited from the frequently hammy Pacino — on the heels of Nicolas Cage‘s powerful and sensitive turn in Green’s “Joe” — establishes the filmmaker as the go-to sponsor for members of Overactors Anonymous.
Written by Paul Logan, “Manglehorn” tells the story of its titular character, a Texas locksmith consumed with grief over a lost love. Pacino bleeds sadness from his eyes, his shoulders, and his every pore, but he’s by no means a one-note figure. A.J. Manglehorn may be estranged from his yuppie son (Chris Messina), but he’s a doting and loving grandpa; he’s often brusque with his customers, but he adores his cat and maintains a pleasant flirtation with bank teller Dawn (Holly Hunter).
Dawn clearly wants to pursue a relationship, but their one date is a masterpiece of awkwardness that turns into complete disaster when she pours out her heart to him, only to have A.J. respond with his memories of Clara, the woman he can’t forget and didn’t marry, and to whom he writes daily letters, all of which return unopened.
(In a nifty metaphor for A.J.’s relationship with the world, not to mention the U.S. Postal Service, there’s an active beehive on the underside of his mailbox that he refuses to move.)
There is change and growth and progress in “Manglehorn,” but none of it follows the expected beats and rhythms that we’ve come to expect from mainstream Hollywood. Green operates in a smarter mode of storytelling, giving the audience the benefit of the doubt that they’ll notice the details, and he’s clearly whispered Pacino into giving a nuanced and human-sized turn.
A more familiarly grand Pacino is on display in Barry Levinson‘s “The Humbling,” and while there’s nothing particularly wrong with this performance, it will feel familiar to anyone acquainted with the actor’s body of work.
(That’s not the only déjà vu on display here; through a weird fluke of synchronicity, “The Humbling” begins and ends with moments very reminiscent of memorable scenes from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Birdman,” another Venice premiere and now one of the season’s most buzzed-about movies.)
This big-screen version of the Philip Roth novel (adapted by Buck Henry and Michael Zebede) stars Pacino as Simon Axler, a legendary actor who finds himself unable to remember his lines. After face-planting into an empty orchestra pit during a performance of “As You Like It,” Simon vows never to act again and checks himself into a psychiatric facility.
Upon his release Simon gets a visit from Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the grown-up daughter of two of his oldest friends. She’s nursed a crush on Simon since childhood and decides to seduce him, despite the fact that she’s spent most of her life in lesbian relationships. The more besotted he becomes with her, the more of her emotionally-ravaged exes turn up, from Louise, the college dean (Kyra Sedgwich) Pegeen seduced to get a teaching gig, to Prince (Billy Porter), who used to be Priscilla and whom Pegeen abandoned when she learned of his upcoming transition.
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“The Humbling” is another Roth older man-younger woman story, and this one feels shockingly out-of-date, from its retro ideas about lesbians and trans people to the two-dimensional vampire that the talented Gerwig is being forced to play. (It’s no coincidence that the only good Roth adaptation of recent years, “Elegy,” was directed by a woman, Isabel Coixet.) There are some laughs here and there — Simon, plagued by anxieties and back pain, is no ageless stud — but the movie on the whole feels shrill, sexist, and repetitive.
Another comedy tainted by a weird retro sexism is Peter Bogdanovich‘s “She’s Funny That Way,” a film that represents my single biggest disappointment at Venice. I rate the director’s “What’s Up, Doc?” (another movie co-written by Buck Henry) as one of the great comedies of all time, and his screen adaptation of “Noises Off” as an above-average movie farce, but here the ingredients steadfastly refuse to whip up into the froth this film so clearly wants to be.
Izzy (Imogen Poots) tells reporter Judy (Illeana Douglas) all about her crazy climb from call girl to famous actress, thanks to director Arnold (Owen Wilson, still in “Midnight in Paris” mode), who has a habit of giving escorts enough money to change professions. Little does he realize that Izzy’s next audition in her newly-launched acting career will be for his own Broadway show, opposite his wife Delta (Kathryn Hahn, playing a more sympathetic character than usual) and lothario Seth (Rhys Ifans), who carries a torch for Delta and who witnessed Izzy coming out of Arnold’s room the morning after their night together.
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From its “Ninotchka”-inspired opening title cards, “She’s Funny” aspires to old-school screwball, much in the same way that “What’s Up, Doc?” did so successfully. But despite the farcical set-ups (involving adjoining hotel rooms, private detectives, and a brusque, busybody therapist played with aching exaggeration by Jennifer Aniston), there’s very little here that brings the funny.
The movie’s portrayal of prostitution is beyond precious — most of the film’s male characters are johns, which we’re supposed to find cute, and it’s treated like a good career move for women — and the otherwise charming and talented Poots proves once again (after “That Awkward Moment”) that she’s one of the few imported UK actors who doesn’t seem capable of maintaining an American accent, much less a grating Brooklynese one.
(Lucy Punch has a five-minute bit as a Russian call girl hiding out in Seth’s bathroom, and she appears to be the only person in the movie who can nail the farcical tone.)
Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach signed on as executive producers to help Bogdanovich get the movie made; they might have done him a bigger favor by talking him out of the project entirely, or at least convincing him and wife Louise Stratten to massively retool their screenplay before foisting it on the public.