If all the world’s a stage, what are all the men and women to do when they can no longer remember their lines? Such is the dilemma facing Simon Axler (Al Pacino), an aging thespian struggling to maintain his career as the line between reality and fiction becomes increasingly blurred. Based on a novel by Philip Roth, director Barry Levinson’s dramatic comedy “The Humbling” examines the professional and mental decline of a man who loses his mind as he loses his passion for the stage, only to replace the latter with a misguided love affair.
Pacino’s Simon Axler is equal parts delightful and depressing. As a seasoned actor, Simon has a strong preoccupation with honesty and believability, so much so that while riding on a gurney after having fallen off a theater stage, he tries his cry of pain several times just to make sure it sounds convincing. His stunt lands him at an upscale rehabilitation facility, where he finds a fresh audience to wow with tales of losing his craft. Having spent so much of his life delivering lines, however, Simon is unable to shake his theatrics and speak genuinely.
In one particularly tickling scene, Simon listens to the confessional monologue of a fellow patient, Sybil (Nina Arianda), only to criticize her delivery as not emotional enough for his tastes. Similarly, after a bona fide blow-out fight with his love interest later on, he is too overwhelmed by the dramatics of the scene to help himself from divulging in the cinematic, crying, “Shane, come back!” So enamored by his own craft and credibility as an actor, Simon can’t step off the stage long enough to have an authentic moment with anyone.
Pacino is laugh-out-loud funny for most of the film, perfectly embodying the line from the film’s trailer that reads, “There’s a fine line between genius and madness.” His egocentric, deadpan interpretation of Buck Henry (“The Graduate”) and Michal Zebede’s script is a testament to the idea that life does not always imitate art. While Simon may have lost his mojo, Pacino certainly hasn’t — but it may not be enough to save the film from some of its significantly weaker elements.
One of the primary shortcomings in question is Simon’s terribly unnecessary love interest, whose arrival marks an unfortunate turning point in a very promising film. Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) plays an unconvincing Pegeen, a young lesbian who inserts herself into Simon’s life as a way to play out a childhood celebrity crush. Pegeen has a nasty habit of burning lovers, from the manically obsessive dean of a women’s college (Kyra Sedgwick) to an ex-girlfriend (Billy Porter) who hopes her recent sex change plus Pegeen’s newfound interest in men will restart their relationship. Pegeen’s sudden appearance at Simon’s country house feels unnatural, as does every interaction between the two thereafter. The affair falls so flat on screen that one can’t help but wish the whole romantic element had been written out of the film all together. Simon’s battle with hallucinations, delusions and the recession of the defining pillar of his identity — his acting talent — are interesting. His romance with the bratty kid of his old acting friends, however, is not.
The biggest flaw with Levinson’s film, however, is not in its execution, its cast nor its plot. For “The Humbling,” it’s all in the timing. The tale of an aging actor on the verge of irrelevance comes out hot on the heels of the similarly-themed “Birdman”’s (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) multiple Academy Award nominations, a feat with which “The Humbling” cannot hope to compete. While the two films do differ more often than they resemble each other, the similarities in character struggle as well as a few key scenes and motifs render the comparisons inevitable and ultimately serve to highlight the weaknesses of Levinson’s work. “The Humbling” boasts an impressive performance by Pacino, but there is little else to convince movie-goers to pick this theater-centered film over the other.
“The Humbling” opens today at Bay Area cinemas.