Toronto: Al Pacino Is Back in 'The Humbling'

Among the actors who have multiple films playing at this year's Toronto International Film Festival are Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon, Kristen Stewart, Naomi Watts – and a young up-and-comer by the name of Al Pacino.

Pacino, of course, is actually as much of a veteran as anyone at the fest, and yet, as he nears his 75th birthday in the spring, he is still working regularly. Of his 2014 TIFF entries, I haven't yet seen David Gordon Green's Manglehorn. But, on Friday, I saw Barry Levinson's The Humbling, which Millennium Entertainment will be distributing, and I am pleased to report that it features some of the best work that Levinson or Pacino have done in years — certainly their best since their prior collaboration, on HBO's 2010 Jack Kevorkian biopic You Don't Know Jack.

If someone picks up the low-budget dramedy, which features numerous laugh-out-loud moments — it was adapted by the great Buck Henry (The Graduate), who is now 83, and Michael Zebede, from Philip Roth's 2009 novel of the same name — there's a chance that strong word-of-mouth could propel it to a decent showing at the box-office and Pacino and his always-solid costar Greta Gerwig to Independent Spirit Award noms and the like.

In the film, Pacino plays Simon Axler, a revered but aging stage actor whose work — and desire to go on living — is no longer at the level it once was, but who is more or less "saved" by the arrival on the scene of Pegeen Mike  Stapleford (Gerwig) , his thirtysomething goddaughter whom he hasn't seen in years, but who always idolized him. Pegeen identifies herself as a lesbian, but initiates a hook-up and eventually a relationship with Simon, to the shock of her parents (her mom is played by Oscar winner Dianne Wiest) and to the confusion but delight of him. Meanwhile, his mental decline and their age gap place strains upon their relationship that eventually come to a dramatic head.

It's a credit to Pacino that he was willing to take on a somewhat "self-reflexive" character, in the sense that he, like Simon, has, in recent years, appeared to have less drive or ability to do the great work that once defined his career, but, at the same time, has never stopped working (or dating younger women). The fact that he tackled this head-on and played it for laughs takes guts, of a sort, just as Michael Keaton's performance in Birdman did, and both actors deserve to be commended for being able to send up themselves so skillfully.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg