As The Humbling opens, we see aging actor Simon Axler (Al Pacino, The Godfather) delivering an excerpt of Shakespeare's As You Like It into a backstage mirror: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances...”
Simon pauses, staring wearily at his reflection. He's supposed to be on stage in a few minutes. He has to get this right. He repeats the lines, emphasizing different syllables each time, but it never clicks. “C'mon, just say the words and let Shakespeare do the rest,” he mutters to himself. He steps outside to clear his head, but accidentally locks himself out of the theatre in the process. He knocks on the back door, insisting that he's the star of the show, but the stagehand refuses to believe him. He runs around to the lobby, insisting that he's the star of the show, but the usher refuses to believe him. He wakes up. Was he dreaming? Yeah. He's supposed to be on stage in a few minutes. No... he's supposed to be on stage now. He stumbles on and delivers a half-focused monologue while gazing at a sea of patrons checking cell phones, reading the program and writing notes. These people have no interest in what he's saying or doing. He finishes his speech and – in a moment either medical or melodramatic – falls off the stage and collapses on the floor.
Simon is temporarily institutionalized in the wake of this incident, but his health issues are overshadowed by a more troubling problem: he no longer has the ability to deliver a convincing performance. Everything that comes out of his mouth feels insincere to him, even his genuine cries of physical pain (“Lemme try that moan again, nurse...”). When he listens to others speak, he's less interested in their words than in how genuine they sound. How can they be so truthful with such ease? Why is his ability to do the same so completely broken?
This is a compelling starting point for an equally compelling performance. When The Humbling (adapted from the novel by Philip Roth) zeroes in on the internal crisis of its central character, it's a riveting experience. There's almost certainly an element of playful irony in the fact that Al Pacino is playing an actor whose best days are far behind him, but Pacino's tender, understated performance demonstrates otherwise. Yes, there are strong echoes of Birdman here (particularly in the opening and closing segments), but Pacino is playing in a different register than Michael Keaton. It's a performance of quiet desperation, as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that nuance, memory and passion are increasingly out of his reach.
Unfortunately, there's a lot of other junk surrounding the Pacino performance, and whether the film is worth your time will largely depend on how much patience you have for that junk. A significant portion of the movie is occupied by a romance between Simon and Louise Trenner (Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha), a 20-something lesbian who just so happens to have a huge crush on Simon. Not to dismiss a literary titan like Mr. Roth, but I can't imagine a more quintessentially Arrogant Old Male Writer scenario than one in which a young, attractive, lesbian tosses aside her sexual preferences for the sake of hooking up with a wrinkly old legend. Good lord.
I don't know if there was ever a way to make the romance work, but Gerwig and Pacino – both remarkably gifted in their own ways – struggle to generate much chemistry. Gerwig is saddled with a lot of unconvincing dialogue, much of it an overwritten attempt to explain why she behaves the way she does. The movie picks up a little steam with the introduction of Louise's fretful parents, but that has more to do with the comic talents of the actors playing them (Dan Hedaya, Joe Vs. the Volcano and Dianne Wiest, Bullets Over Broadway) than with the quality of the writing. I also could have done without the completely pointless addition of a psychologist played by Dylan Baker (Spider-Man 2), who communicates with Simon via Skype. Baker's character serves no other purpose than providing Simon a reason to deliver large chunks of exposition.
Director Barry Levinson shot the film over a number of years on a shoestring budget (using his own house as one of the central locations), and there are moments when it shows. The lighting seems off in certain scenes, and the camera tends to wander around with somewhat aimless uncertainty. Still, the film's best scenes (generally involving Pacino engaging in quiet self-reflection, save for a moment of bombastic self-reflection in the third act) have a certain technical elegance, as if the director is well aware of the scenes that really matter. The film's finale incorporates the ending of Shakespeare's King Lear, one of the most powerful moments in all of fiction. It's strong stuff, but the scene's power draws too much from Shakespeare and too little from the rest of The Humbling. Pacino, Levinson and Roth are old pros, but only Pacino delivers consistently this time around.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2015