Al Pacino is almost always worth watching, and his latest
endeavor is especially welcome: a vehicle that’s tailor-made for the actor at
this moment in his life and career. The
Humbling is based on Philip Roth’s novel, which was vilified by some
reviewers as a dirty-old-man’s sexual fantasy. The film, directed by Barry
Levinson and credited to screenwriters Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, is
considerably more complex. It also bears a superficial resemblance to Birdman in that it focuses on an actor
experiencing a crisis of identity and purpose.
In the opening scene, Pacino is applying makeup and testing
himself in a mirror, repeatedly challenging his line readings, wondering if
they’re believable. We know that actors fear “going up” on stage and forgetting
their lines, but Pacino is in an even worse place, emotionally speaking. After
he hits rock bottom he’s transported to a psychiatric hospital, where he
confesses to a group of fellow patients that he has lost his gift. Acting has
been his whole life and now he feels adrift.
Enter Greta Gerwig, the daughter of fellow actors and old
friends, who teaches at a nearby college and is in a longterm lesbian
relationship. She all but pounces on Pacino; she always harbored a crush on him
and decides to act on those long-suppressed feelings. Right now.
Soon, the actor’s life resembles something from the Theater
of the Absurd. One of the patients from his group therapy sessions (Nina
Arianda) wants him to kill her husband and won’t take no for an answer. Gerwig’s
parents (Dianne Weist, Dan Hedaya) are understandably furious about him taking
up with their daughter. Pacino’s agent (Charles Grodin) is eager for him to
accept what few job offers have arisen—one of them for a hair-growing
treatment. And so on.
The Humbling is consistently
compelling, and Pacino is in fine form: the lion in winter. Working on a slim
budget, Levinson has gotten the best from his talented cast and made good use
of his Connecticut locations (including his own home). The Humbling is understandably uneven, as it veers from farce to
tragedy, and decidedly offbeat, but always interesting; I’m glad I saw it.