‘The Humbling’ serves up yet another film about the pains of being an aging white man delivered by a collection of famous aging white men. Generally speaking, that’s bad news. (See ‘Last Vegas’ for more.) However, this film manages to make a compelling case for the genre actually being worthwhile. It probably helps that two of the most prominent old Hollywood farts involved in the project are behind the camera to ensure that it digs deeper into its subject matter than jokes about grey pubes.
I’m referring to director Barry Levinson (‘Rain Man’) and screenwriter Buck Henry (‘The Graduate’), two underrated and underappreciated filmmakers with a knack for satire and observational comedy so pointed that it stings. Together, they’ve delivered a wonderful little movie about an aging actor who bottoms out with an onstage nervous breakdown, makes a pit stop at a mental institution, then has a May/December romance with his goddaughter (Greta Gerwig), and finally decides to play ‘King Lear’. Here’s the best part: there’s a very good chance that none of it is real since the character is likely sliding into dementia. Here’s the even better part: Al Pacino plays the actor in question.
Inspired by the wonderful script and anchored by Levinson, Pacino gives a surprisingly subtle performance by the standards of the late era of his career. The movie has a few “Screamin’ Al” moments, but they’re always justified as performances with the film. Otherwise, Pacino delivers a very quiet and interior performance the likes of which he hasn’t attempted in years. He’s also incredibly hilarious at times, especially during the scene where he acts on horse tranquilizers.
Levinson and Henry have a lot of fun toying with what may or may not be delusion, giving the film a woozy sense of reality that heightens every scene and constantly forces the audience to double back and question what they’ve seen. Somehow, that effect never curbs the comedy. It just adds another flavor to the deeply intriguing movie.
Eventually, Pacino starts playing King Lear on screen and it all comes together in a very clear way. That may sound pretentious, but Levinson and Henry employ their Shakespeare references subtly and poignantly. Granted, it’s still a movie that has a ‘King Lear’ reading prerequisite, but if you haven’t read ‘King Lear’, then chances are you wouldn’t like this movie anyway, with or without the references. It’s a brainy flick, yet also a hilarious one. It’s good fun as long as you don’t mind all that thinkin’.