In some ways, ‘The Humbling’ plays like a darker sibling to recent Oscar nominee ‘Birdman’. Both films deal with over-the-hill actors experiencing mental breakdowns mid-production on a play, both favor an elastic sense of reality and delusion, and both feature strikingly similar sequences. Those resemblances likely explain why ‘The Humbling’ was essentially shelved and ignored last year despite boasting one of Al Pacino’s finest performances in years.
There was some chance that ‘The Humbling’ might have stolen a little thunder from ‘Birdman’ and no one wanted that. However, none of that changes the fact that Barry Levinson’s study of aging and fame remains a fascinating and funny little film that should be sought out and devoured by anyone with a taste for the unusual.
Pacino stars as once-beloved actor Simon Axler. He opens the film by experiencing an existential panic attack while backstage for a show. He then takes the stage and swan-dives into the orchestra after a few lines. Clearly, it’s mental breakdown time for Simon, and he celebrates by checking into a countryside mental health retreat where he meets, amongst other eccentrics, a woman (Nina Arianda) who asks him to kill her ex-husband based on his performance as a killer in a film. From there, Simon retreats to his isolated house where his health deteriorates much further and a collection of oddball guests pop by regularly to poke at his fragile psyche.
The big guest is his goddaughter Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), who finally fulfills her childhood crush on the actor. With Pegeen come some angry parents (including the great Dianne Wiest) and a few of her jilted ex-girlfriends. Then Simon receives regular visits from his anxious manager (Charles Grodin) and regular Skype chats with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker). None of the events help with his disturbed mental state. That is, assuming that any of this is actually happening, of course.
All of this makes ‘The Humbling’ sound like a relentlessly depressing and pretentious film, but thankfully it isn’t. (Well, not always.) It’s based on a tricky Philip Roth novel adapted by the brilliant dark comedy mind of Buck Henry (‘The Graduate’, ‘To Die For’). In Henry’s hands, the film is as much a bleak farce as it a dark exploration of a cracking psyche. Barry Levinson directs and complicates things with an elliptical and fractured editing style that makes it difficult to determine which scenes are actually happening and which are playing out purely in Simon’s mind.
Levinson and Henry construct the movie as a head-trip, a mystery that can’t ever quite be solved, and an experience not easily forgotten. Stacked with an extraordinary cast, ‘The Humbling’ is consistently funny and surprisingly poignant in its exploration of the pains of aging. Pacino holds it all together with a performance that ranges from a shrunken lost soul to “wailing Al” absurdity that always serve the character over his ego. Gerwig creates a charming character that can never quite be grasped, while the other actors all come in, spar with Pacino, steal the occasional scene and serve Levinson and Henry’s weirdo vision.
Ultimately, this is a movie made by three old white guys in showbiz about the struggle of being an old white guy in showbiz. Reduced down to that description, ‘The Humbling’ sounds damn near unwatchable. It really should be hard to take. Yet, when those three old white guys are as talented as Levinson, Henry and Pacino, the subject doesn’t particularly matter. They’ve taken elderly navel gazing and transformed it into art with a harsh comedic aftertaste. Near the end, ‘King Lear’ even becomes a plot point and clear inspiration for the whole strange endeavor. It says a lot about the talent and conviction of the movie’s three central pillars that they don’t crumble under the weight of comparing themselves to Shakespeare.
‘The Humbling’ might be too strange, episodic, dark and limited in appeal to qualify as a masterpiece, but it’s a fascinating late career effort from the writer, director and star. If this ends up being the swan song for one or all three of those geniuses, it wouldn’t be a bad note to go out on.