Among Oscar-season boutique releases targeting the elderly, few are as consistently, willfully discombobulating as Barry Levinson’s The Humbling. Adapted from a late, prototypically “minor” Philip Roth novel, the film occupies the gap nobody knew existed between Birdman and Listen Up Philip, probing Roth’s standard end-of-life disquiet with narrative unreliability courtesy of its senile antihero, a stage actor named Simon Axler (Al Pacino). It’s hard not to take the petite Axler, so frail and doleful, as a bluntly autobiographical creation—a suspicion further leavened by the fact that Pacino optioned Roth’s book long before Levinson came aboard. Axler struggles not just with his own career’s ossification, but the theater’s dwindling prestige at large, allowing for cutaway gags of the kids-these-days variety when the septuagenarian star pours his heart out in front of a listless, iPhone-shackled audience. After face-planting off the stage’s edge, Axler is interred at a mental hospital where he reflects, almost too readily, on the lonely ebb of his talents—but not without first asking the paramedic throttling him to the ER if his moans of pain were believable enough.
At first, a role that should be a largesse of what they call “motivation” is, in Pacino’s withered hands, mostly just a safe space for the actor’s range of signature tics: outbursts of constipated truth-telling, world-weariness impossibly crammed into the day’s every pedestrian moment, and beyond-glazed-over eyes, left over from Scent of a Woman (would that all Pacino’s characters could have the excuse of blindness). For Pacino, The Humbling’s upshot may well be the chance to play a character for whom these idiosyncrasies are, for once, appropriate. Retired, doddering around his Connecticut McMansion, he strikes up a kinship with Pegeene (Greta Gerwig), the thirtysomething lesbian daughter of some old theater friends. Soon the two are sleeping together on the regular, with Pegeene commenting: “I guess this ends my 16-year mistake.” The taboo of Axler sleeping with his friends’ daughter is addressed, but the all-too-visible age difference between Pacino and Gerwig is not—and when the script, written by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, tries mining Pegeene’s heterosexual “past” for cheap laughs, it’s downright painful. The screenplay gives Pegeene a proper, thorough examination, but the scant glimpses of her internal logic bespeak Roth’s anti-facility for writing women moreso than anything Gerwig manages bringing to the table—and that’s both a shame and a waste.
This is the bizarre paradox of The Humbling: On Pacino’s shoulders, the film comes perilously close to working, but when it needs Axler to come into contact with other human life forms, it grows both rancid and listless, playing for noxious belly laughs on the side. Levinson takes visible pleasure in puncturing some showbiz clichés while reaffirming others, and a good handful of moments—like Axler’s pained negotiations with his agent (Charles Grodin) over whether or not to do a hair-restoration commercial—teeter between comedy and tragedy with pointed, blurred ambivalence. Maybe by design, the film feels like two hours spent with a washed-up egomaniac; in one scene, Axler reflects on his woebegone career, and Levinson’s camera drifts down to the floor and back up to Pacino for no intuitive reason. As the stitchwork of Axler’s sanity begins to come loose, exactly no one in the audience will be surprised that the more eccentric turns in the plot were mere hallucinations, and Roth’s original ending is cranked up to 11 by Henry and Zebede’s on-stage climax, flattening the more interesting contours of Pacino’s performance into a martyr’s desperate plea for an audience’s love.