Like King Lear, the aging hero of “The Humbling” is a character to be played with age and experience. He feels getting old and tired more than ever as he faces the last act of his remaining life, and he is usually helpless with his increasing bafflement and frustration over what is going around or inside him. Although it feels jumbled due to its uneven narrative, the movie is not without amusement, and it also gives Al Pacino a nice chance to give one of his better movie performances during recent years.
Pacino plays Simon Axler, a Broadway stage actor who passed his prime a long time ago but has tried to go on as a trouper. Right before his another stage performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, he is alone in his dressing room, and he seems to be almost ready for the show as warming himself up with soliloquy, but then he only finds himself tumbled into a bad situation. He happens to be locked out of the theater when he is about to appear on the stage, and then, though he manages to arrive on the stage despite this silly incident, he experiences a mental breakdown right in front of the audiences, who surely get a night to remember and talk about.
While watching this opening sequence, some of you will probably be reminded of the similar sequence in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s recent film “Birdman” (2014). Besides having anxious actor hero in personal/professional crisis at the center of their stories, both of these two films also have a fair share of delusional moments to reflect their heroes’ unstable state of mind, and the overlap between them are quite visible although they are also different from each other in many other ways.
Compared to the bouncy mood of “Birdman”, “The Humbling” takes a sedater route. Thanks to his doctor, Axler gets some rest at a nice sanitarium after his breakdown, but then he happens to get himself into a tricky circumstance. A fellow patient at the sanitarium approaches to him on one day, and it is apparent that Sybil (Nina Arianda) is not all right in her mind, especially when she directly asks him to kill her husband. Regardless of whether what she says is true or not, it looks like she needs more medical help, but, like those self-absorbed actors, Axler distances himself from her matter even when she confides to him on why she wants her husband’s death.
After his recuperation period at the sanitarium, Axler returns to his home with no particular future plan, and then he meets Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the young daughter of Axler’s longtime friends. Although she went through a number of romantic relationships with women, Pegeen reveals her old feeling toward Axler, and he does not mind her approach at all although he knows well from the beginning that their possible romance will not last long mainly due to his old age.
Even with his acknowledgement, things do not go that well for him, and the screenplay by Buck Heny and Michal Zebede, which is based on Philip Roth’s novel, throws absurd moments of humor into the story as Axler faces many complications resulted from his relationship with Pegeen. While he experiences odd encounters with a couple of her ex-lovers (one of them recently went through a sex change operation, by the way), he also has to confront Pegeen’s parents at one point, and they are understandably not very happy to see their close friend being their daughter’s latest lover.
And he becomes more confused than ever as his mind frequently goes astray with delusions. Persuaded by his agent, he decides to come out of his retirement later, and he soon begins to prepare for his comeback through a modern interpretation of “King Lear”, but the line between reality and delusion gets more blurred than before, and we come to wonder whether many things shown through his increasingly unreliable viewpoint are real or not.
The director Barry Levinson, who previously worked with Pacino in HBO TV movie “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010), tries to keep the film floated amid its hero’s accumulating confusion, but the screenplay suffers from its jarring shifts between different tones, and the result is an incoherent mix of lightweight absurdity and gloomy pathos. Maybe you can ignore the distracting use of handheld camera in the film, but the story loses the focus as being drifted with its confused hero, and we become distant to its several key scenes including an uncertain moment of revelation around its third act.
In addition, the movie fails to make its central human relationship look convincing. Although Greta Gerwig is surely a good actress with natural charm as shown in “Frances Ha” (2012), we cannot see much of what attracts Axler to her elusive character who is supposed to have a mesmerizing influence over not only him but also her past lovers, and the development of their relationship never feels convincing at all. The other good actors in the film including Kyra Sedgwick, Dan Hedaya, Dylan Baker, Charles Grodin, Nina Arianda, and Diane Wiest are unfortunately wasted in their broad, underdeveloped roles, and Baker gets a particularly thankless job of phoning in his character (or skyping in his character, shall we say).
Even without that unavoidable comparison to “Birdman”, “The Humbling” remains to be a misfire which does not leave much impression on us, but Al Pacino gives a performance to remind us that he is still a compelling actor to watch even when he is going through what may be the last act of his career. Besides his successful movie career, Pacino has also been known well for his acclaimed stage works and his personal passion toward to Shakespeare’s plays, and the ambiguous finale of “The Humbling” reminds us that it will be really fantastic to watch Pacino playing King Lear on the stage. To be frank with you, I want to see that instead now.