An actor prepares to face the final curtain of his career in “The Humbling,” director Barry Levinson’s free-form adaptation of Philip Roth’s penultimate novel, about a star of stage and screen beginning to lose the tricks of his trade (and possibly his grasp on reality). In one of those curious quirks of timing, Levinson’s film arrives hot on the heels of another polymorphous movie about an actor in crisis, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s “Birdman,” in whose deservedly large shadow it may be doomed to dwell. But where Inarritu’s exuberant style piece calls to mind the likes of Fosse and Fellini, “The Humbling” feels closer to the intimate theater/film hybrid works of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (“My Dinner With Andre,” “Vanya on 42nd Street”) in its lo-fi aesthetics and gently playful sense of art imitating life imitating art. Fronted by a vibrant, deeply committed Al Pacino performance and very fine support from Greta Gerwig, this uneven but captivating film deserves to find its own audience, though doing so will surely prove to be an uphill climb.
Pacino, who seemed to have awakened from a long acting coma when he played Dr. Jack Kevorkian in Levinson’s 2010 HBO movie, “You Don’t Know Jack,” seems similarly rejuvenated here, in what’s easily his best bigscreen performance since Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” in 2002. When we first meet his 67-year-old Simon Axler, it’s backstage at a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” and Axler is getting into character as the philosophical traveler Jaques — a fascinating scene in which Pacino himself seems to be showing us how he gets into character, staring into the dressing room mirror and trying out variations on the celebrated “All the world’s a stage” speech, scrutinizing himself to see if his delivery has the ring of truth. “Do you believe that?” he asks himself. “Was that real for you?”
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Indeed, all the world is a stage for Axler, who at one point asks a hospital nurse if she “believed” the moan of pain he just uttered, then tries it again. That’s shortly after Simon has swan-dived into the orchestra pit during a performance of the play, making him the hottest thing in the Broadway gossip columns since Julie Taymor’s “Spider-Man” and earning himself a 30-day stay in a psychiatric hospital. He worries, he tells a group therapy session there, that he’s “lost track” of his craft, the way a musician might lose his ear for music, but even as he is supposedly baring his soul it’s clear that Simon is “on,” performing for an attentive crowd. That includes Sybil (Nina Arianda), the wife of a wealthy businessman who regales Simon with a lurid account of her husband’s sexual abuse of their young daughter. Simon was so compelling, she remembers, in a movie where he went crazy and killed all his neighbors, wouldn’t he think about doing her a favor and killing her husband for real?
And so it very much goes in “The Humbling,” in which there seems to be precious little difference between life in an asylum and the asylum of life. Thus Simon retreats to his sprawling Connecticut home (where he has never fully unpacked) and shuffles about in a semi-suicidal despair, until the sudden appearance of Pageen (Gerwig), the daughter of old actor friends, who tells Simon she harbored a massive crush on him in her youth and is now teaching at a nearby women’s college. Though Pageen claims to be a lesbian, with a trail of broken-hearted exes behind her, she rather quickly makes a play for Simon — a narrative device that seems even more far-fetched in Levinson’s film than it did in Roth’s novel (where the age difference between the characters was slightly less dramatic).
At this point, “The Humbling” might have tipped irretrievably into the realm of dirty-old-man fantasy (as many accused the novel of doing), but Levinson and Gerwig work a kind of magic on the character that makes her seem more than a misogynistic projection (unlike pretty much all the other female roles here). Pageen is an almost unplayable part pitched halfway between sex object and angel of death, in which Gerwig is required to turn on a dime from man-eating seductress to scolding shrew to insecure daddy’s girl and back again, but the actress hits all the notes with such brash confidence and sly humor that Pageen comes to seem very much the master of her own destiny. If Simon has, on some level, willed her into being, he’s the one who ends up seeming the puppet on her strings, and when Pacino and Gerwig share the screen, they have a special chemistry that comes from two gifted actors pushing each other beyond their respective comfort zones.
The rest of “The Humbling” doesn’t always rise to the same level. While the screenplay, credited to Buck Henry and Michael Zebede, has done much to curb some of the novel’s worst tendencies, the movie still devotes far too much time to the unstable Sybil and her continued efforts to implicate Simon in her husband’s murder, and on Pageen’s myriad exes (including Kyra Sedgwick as the dean of her college, and Billy Porter as a recent female-to-male gender reassignment patient), who have a habit of popping up on Simon’s estate like weeds in the garden. A device invented for the screen, of Simon appearing in periodic Skype conference with his hospital shrink (Dylan Baker), only serves to underline themes and ideas already well present in the film. But the movie rights itself once Simon is faced with two possible comebacks — a TV hair-replacement commercial, or “King Lear” on Broadway — and must reckon if he still has the actorly chops demanded by either.
As with Michael Keaton in “Birdman,” there’s the feeling that Pacino is playing close to the reality of his own topsy-turvy career here (which recently included a turn opposite Adam Sandler in the embarrassing “Jack and Jill,” a fate worse than hair-commercial hell). It’s a brave performance, not entirely lacking in its own vanity, but marked by moments in which Pacino lets go of the tics and mannerisms — the gravelly-voiced mumblings and hoo-wah! crescendos — that have been the crutches of his late career, and the great actor stands once more revealed.
Levinson decks out the cast with a wealth of ace character actors who make the most of their fleeting appearances, including Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest as Pageen’s understandably aggrieved parents, and a deliciously sardonic Charles Grodin, looking like the cat who ate the canary — along with the entire birdcage — as Simon’s long-suffering agent. Shot on a low budget and a 20-day shooting schedule, mostly in and around Levinson’s own Connecticut home, “The Humbling” maintains a professional sheen that belies its limited resources, aided by Adam Jandrup’s handsome but unfussy widescreen digital cinematography (with a nice attention to the change of seasons) and Sam Lisenco’s well-appointed production design.