Review: The Humbling
PLOT: An aging actor finds himself having an affair with a much younger woman - who also happens to be a lesbian - after an emotional breakdown. Soon, his world is turned upside down as he tries to discover what exactly to make of this new relationship.
REVIEW: In the not so appropriately entitled THE HUMBLING, Al Pacino portrays an actor who faces a personal crisis. As he puts it, he loses his gift. In the opening scenes he is trying to convince himself that the words he is about to speak from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” are honest. Can he really believe himself when he states that “All the world’s a stage…?” Much like the film, it is a mess of a scene that has a hint of brilliance in Pacino’s performance. Yet the camera moves back and forth from the actor to his reflection in a mirror, only to lead to a scene that is nearly identical to one featured in the Oscar contender, BIRDMAN. While comparisons between the two are going to be made, that is the last time I will bring it up as it is almost certainly just happenstance that the two films are similar in so many ways.
Simon Adler (Pacino) was once a hugely successful actor. When we meet the aging talent he is about to go on stage to play Jaques in “As You Like It.” Yet once the actor faces his audience, he is confounded and confused. Those in attendance flip through their programs, cough, and look down at their watch. He is lost in the words, and he simply cannot take it anymore. He falls face first into the orchestra pit. After this painful performance, Simon begins to see a psychiatrist (Dylan Baker) who suggests his patient could use a little rest. After a brief - and bizarre - period in a rehabilitation center, he returns to his home with continued Skype conferences with his doctor. That is when a young woman named Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) shows up on his doorstep.
Pegeen is the daughter of a former relation of Simon (Dianne Wiest), and she is currently a teacher - as well as a lesbian. As this strange young woman whom Simon watched grow up begins to insert herself into his life, the aging actor is continually surrounded by an increasing number of people far more insane than even he. This includes two of Pegeen’s ex-lovers, a wasted Kyra Sedgwick, and a man named Prince (Billy Porter) with whom Pegeen had relations with when he was a woman, before having surgery. If that wasn’t enough, there is a crazed fan named Sybil (Nina Arianda) who Adler met while under care. Much like Simon Adler’s current mental state, THE HUMBLING is a messy and uncomfortable. It is an odd, and once in a while fascinating, distortion of satire and drama.
Director Barry Levinson, along with screenwriters Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, have adapted the novel by Phillip Roth to create a strange and narcissistic portrait of a miserable man, and the insanity that surrounds him. Not a single character here is all that interesting, or even worth investing much time into. Even the usually charming Gerwig portrays a bit of a schlub here who has absolutely zero chemistry with Pacino. Their entanglement is an awkward display of a May/December romance, one that gets even more absurd as she attempts to liven it up with a threesome. And then there is Sybil, the wacko fan that has an outlandish request for Simon that you really have to question why he hasn’t called the police immediately after she arrives at his home - hell, even before that. To be fair, the question is raised as to what and who is real in Simon’s mixed up mind, yet it seems to be haphazardly handled in its execution.
The idea of watching Al Pacino dissect the life of an actor - especially a Shakespearean one - could have been at the very least intriguing. Of course, for this you’d be better off with LOOKING FOR RICHARD. However, the saving grace here is Pacino’s performance. As pathetic as Simon Adler may be, Pacino is able to bring a sense of humor to him. It is a grounded portrayal, one that feels even more so thanks to the strangeness he tends to attract - most of it at his house. Out of all the outlandish guests that haunt this pathetic soul’s life, the best and most entertaining is Pegeen’s mother played perfected by Weist. One sequence involving Pegeen’s cat being taken to the vet with her parents, including her father (Dan Hedaya), as well as Simon is absolutely hilarious. Weist is an incredible talent and she is just fantastically funny here.
THE HUMBLING is an uneven mess of a film. The characters are generally pathetic, and they fail to generate interest in their boorish and selfish plight. However, there is something fascinating in Pacino’s work, and it is arguably his best performance in quite a long time. It may have been a much more satisfying watch had we seen more of the legendary actor and Weist together more often. Unfortunately the reasoning and ideas in this far from humble film are simply self important, and overly long. Even the final sequence leaves you wondering why exactly you just wasted a couple of hours with people you wouldn’t want to spend more than five minutes with. This is an intriguing idea with a mediocre execution.