'The Humbling': Venice Review

The Humbling Still
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A savage mixture of tragi-comedy gets its act together midway and becomes entertaining

Al Pacino plays a washed-up stage actor who falls in love with Greta Gerwig as an unrepressed young lesbian

The Humbling started life as Philip Roth’s 30th novel and one of his most poorly received works, dismissed by the critics as little more than the sexual fantasies of an elderly man. Certainly not the most auspicious beginning for a film adaptation, and these unfortunate origins probably have a lot to do with the wildly uneven tone and quality of Barry Levinson’s tragi-comedy about the last roar of a once-great stage actor. Al Pacino, who reunites with the director after their 2010 TV movie You Don’t Know Jack, has warmly saluted the Bard in his own documentary Looking for Richard and runs riot here in the role of the self-absorbed Shakespearean performer. And his love story with a young lesbian woman who gives up women (“a 16-year-long mistake”) to bed him is nothing short of preposterous.

And yet, all this notwithstanding and after an extremely buggy first half, Buck Henry and Michal Zebede’s screenplay finally kicks in and an entertaining film emerges from the rubble. Once Pacino is surrounded by other characters, the comedy comes thick and fast and the material begins to come together in an absurd sort of way. Though the film will not have the easiest time finding an audience, basically favorable critical response in Venice should help spread the word.

One of the film’s themes is the impossibility of separating art and life, and this bizarre potpourri is part Woody Allen sex comedy and part Birdman. There are some astounding coincidences with the Alejandro G. Inarritu film, which played in Venice just days before. Consider the opening scene, in which the drunken Simon Axler (Pacino) talks to himself in his dressing room mirror as he prepares to go on stage with As You Like It.  The camera cross-cuts from Simon to his image as though there were two men dialoguing with each other. Later, he throws himself off the stage, to the audience’s horror.  Still later, he locks himself out at the theater door by mistake and has to argue with the ushers to let him in to his own play.

The “accident” in the theater, followed by a botched suicide attempt, lands Simon in a posh rehab institute, where he discourses about losing his “craft” in group therapy sessions. There he meets the ineffable Sybil (Nina Arianda), a wealthy, spaced-out society woman who describes coming home and catching her model husband with his head up their little daughter’s dress. Next, she asks Simon to kill her husband, because he has so much experience with guns in his movies. When, later in the film, she unexpectedly turns up chez lui, she becomes seriously funny.

Simon is dismissed from rehab but stays in close touch with his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), by Skype, a silliness used to fine comic effect through intercutting the shrink’s comments with actual events. Having moved back into his spacious mansion and wooded property in Connecticut, Simon is visited by Pegeen (a wonderful Greta Gerwig), whom he hasn’t seen since she was 10. In the early days of his career he acted in a play with her mother (Dianne Wiest). She may not be particularly smart or beautiful, but Pegeen is extremely good at getting what she wants, like a college teaching job which she secured by sleeping with the dean (Kyra Sedgwick). Despite being gay, Pegeen seduces Simon without a moment’s hesitation and moves in, much to the chagrin of the love-sick dean and her own ex-girlfriend, Priscilla, who is now known as Prince (Billy Porter) following a sex-change operation.   

All these raucous characters and events are filtered through Simon’s unreliable narrator as he continues compulsively reflecting on his feelings for Pegeen. His aging body is a problem (he’s 65, she’s 33) but not for the resourceful young woman, who simply rolls over in bed and turns on her vibrator. By this point in the film the laughs are pretty continuous. They peak in a delectable scene in a vet’s office where Pacino, who has thrown out his back, is given a horse tranquillizer for the pain and can barely speak. Yet he attempts to rebut Pegeen’s angry parents, who demand he stop seeing their daughter, even though they can hardly understand him. This is a high point for a film that shifts back to Broadway and Shakespeare-serious for some final bits of cruelty.  

The diverse scenes are unified by a wandering hand-held camera, which gives them a spontaneous documentary feel, in contrast to Adam Jandrup’s dramatic theatrical lighting and its unreal glow. Music by Marcelo Zarvos is always fresh and interesting.

Production companies: Millenium Films in association with Baltimore Pictures, Dubin Media
Cast: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Nina Arianda, Dylan Baker, Charles Grodin, Dan Hedaya, Billy Porter, Kyra Sedgwick, Dianne Wiest, Mary Louise Wilson
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenwriters: Buck Henry, Michal Zebede, based on a novel by Philip Roth
Producers: Jason Sosnoff, Barry Levinson

Executive producers: Kristina Dubin, Avi Lerner, Trevor Shot, Ged Dickersin
Director of photography: Adam Jandrup
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Kim Wilcox
Editor: Aaron Yanes
Music: Marcelo Zarvos

No rating, 113 minutes