Simon Axler (Al Pacino) is prone to theatrics, and while it would be easy to blame his life-long career as a reasonably well-regarded actor for such a personality defect (Simon certainly loves to do that), the most likely culprit for his over-the-top acting out is that he’s a selfish bastard who has never been called out on his crap. Sick over the apparent loss of his “craft” (either in terms of interest or actual ability, it’s never exactly clear), Simon attempts suicide by throwing himself off the stage during a performance. It’s the height of self-involved folly, and although it’s amusing and appropriately bizarre as it unfolds, it soon becomes just another example of Simon’s self-involved attitude and inability to differentiate between the real world and the make believe one.
Shipped off to a high-class funny farm, Simon doesn’t learn a damn thing – shocking, right? – and is soon returned back to his big country house to bang around, mutter incoherently about his place in the world and attempt to romance the least appropriate person around. Based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling tracks Simon’s protracted downfall, but the film itself is such a tremendous letdown that Simon’s problems prove minuscule by comparison.
Simon is entirely driven by performance – and not just his own, but the perceived performances of others – but Pacino is flat and lax with his work, and Simon never actually engages his audience. The actor is certainly not aiming for likability with his role, and Simon’s not a charming guy (no matter what we’re led to believe by other characters) but Pacino doesn’t add in enough spark to make him even remotely scan as human. Passing him off as nutty isn’t helpful either, and it feels like an easy out for a far more complicated issue. That craziness may not all be Simon’s fault, because it certainly doesn’t seem like he’s getting the kind of care anyone, least of all a famous actor, should be receiving. His time in rehab is limited to pointless group therapy sessions (which he dominates and domineers), hanging out with a fellow patient who is intent on hiring him to kill her evil husband (Nina Arianda, who is excellent) and limited Skype sessions with his primary therapist (which continue long after he’s been busted out of the big house, though their effectiveness is never evident).
Once ensconced at his country home, Simon soon encounters Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of his closest friends, dispatched to bring him a gift basket filled with meats and crackers. That charitable gesture is soon flipped on its head, however, thanks to Pegeen’s cringeworthy confession of a long-held crush on Simon. Gerwig, normally so delightful and invigorating on the big screen, is woefully miscast in the feature, tasked with playing a hard-edged and immature sociopath, Gerwig flounders. Her natural charm occasionally pops up before being forcefully pushed back down, and it’s no coincidence that she nearly suffocates in her role. It’s cinematic drowning, and it’s wrenching to watch play out.
The script, fairly faithfully adapted from Roth’s novel by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, doesn’t attempt to cut the awkwardness: Pegeen is interested in Simon because she’s always been interested in him, even as a child, despite the fact that she identifies as a lesbian, with the unsettling revelation that he’s actually her godfather held off for longer than is perhaps necessary. Simon showers Pegeen with attention – at least, the kind of attention that Simon can muster while literally appearing slack-jawed – along with a new (more feminine) wardrobe and her own allowance. Is Pegeen using Simon? Is Simon using her? It doesn’t matter, because little about The Humbling actually matters, and the film seems destined to exist as footnote in both Gerwig and Pacino’s respective careers, a big misstep by nearly everyone involved that is best left forgotten (and maybe a little maligned)
Although Pacino and Gerwig is a horribly mismatched pair, what chemistry they lack (which is to say, all of it) is livened up considerably when a rotating cast of vital and fresh supporting talents begins to rotate in and out of the picture. Simon may bemoan the influx of insane people stomping around his house and his life, but The Humbling is at its mild best when stars like Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin and Kyra Sedgwick arrive to mix things up and add energy and pop to the otherwise dire affair.
Levinson has assembled a wonderful cast – the kind of names that will look damn good on a poster, so good that they might trick packs of trusting audiences into seeing the feature – and although both Pacino and Gerwig fail to deliver, the film’s best bits come care of supporting characters that never stick around long enough. These small, sparking turns help the limping film along like so many tiny, cinematic crutches, helping to ensure it’s not a total failure. Still, even the most well-tuned scenes, from an uproarious argument in a vet’s office that features Pacino and Wiest facing off to an emotional reunion involving Billy Porter, can’t save The Humbling from crumbling straight out the gate, a limp and lame adaptation that should more than humble all involved.
The Upside: A strong cast of supporting characters, occasional moments of great humor (most of them helped along immeasurably by said supporting characters), crisply and cleanly filmed.
The Downside: Greta Gerwig is woefully miscast, Al Pacino seems unengaged the entire time, the duo exhibits zero spark (sexual or otherwise), a muddled narrative that comes with precious little forward momentum.
On the Side: The film is based on Philip Roth’s 2009 novel of the same name, the author’s thirtieth book and one of the few to receive roundly negative reviews.