In Al Pacino’s 1996 directorial debut “Looking for Richard,” Pacino (playing himself) adapted Shakespeare’s “Richard III” by having actors perform snippets of the play, showing rehearsals of scenes and interviewing people on the street about the story. The search for the essence of the royal character was used a means to discuss the craft of acting. It’s main accomplishment was that it avoided being pretentious.
Given this directorial effort, and his penchant as an actor to jump from stage to screen seemingly at will, it’s unsurprising that the actor snapped up the rights to Philip Roth’s penultimate novel, “The Humbling”: First published in 2009, it’s about a sexagenarian actor who realizes he’s lost his mojo after getting panned for his recent performances. Sound familiar?
Having coaxed Pacino out of his career slumber in 2010 with HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack,” director Barry Levinson once again gets the actor to give a performance that harkens back to past glories. At its start, Pacino gazes into a changing room mirror and practices the “All the world is a stage” speech from “As You Like It.” Going out for a smoke as the curtain is about to go up, he gets locked out of a theater and tries to enter through the front lobby.
It’s a moment that’s remarkably familiar to a scene from another fall festival entry, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s “Birdman,” and indeed the similarities between the two films don’t end there. In both, an aging actor takes on a part — Michael Keaton as Benjamin Kanes in “Birdman,” Pacino as Simon Axler in “The Humbling” — who are pretty much doppelgangers for themselves. In both films, the actors struggle to distinguish fact from fiction while lamenting that age has withered their star appeal. As such, comparisons between the two are inevitable, and it’s likely that “The Humbling” will suffer greatly by comparison, continuing the trend of Philip Roth’s work failing to successfully crossover from page to screen.
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Fortunately, the entertainment value of “The Humbling” comes largely from Pacino’s performance. In the early scenes, which set up Axler’s angst-riddled personality, he declares that he’ll never act again before flinging himself off stage and into the crowd. Everything about his antics exhude anxiety: His favorite quote is Oscar Levante’s “There is a thin line between genius and insanity.” He has a shotgun in honor of Ernest Hemmingway’s suicide. Even his dreams find him walking into chaos.
Eventually, Axler is sent to a mental institution, where he’s treated by psychiatrist Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker). As part of his post-institution therapy, he has to Skype with the psychiatrist — and it’s through these conversations that the story unfolds. At first, this takes the form of Axler discussing the art of acting, trying to work out why he’s no longer at the top of the game. These discussions reach a hilarious apex when Axler demonstrates his own narcissism, observing the actions and delivery of fellow inmate Sybil (Nina Arianda), oblivious to the fact that she’s revealing how she caught her husband molesting their daughter.
Sybil is Axler’s number one fan, but she confuses his screen roles with reality when she asks him to murder her husband — seemingly believing that he’ll be able to act his way out of getting sent to jail. The whiff of silliness to the request becomes a stench in subsequent scenes between the pair, as Sybil begins to stalk Axler. Their scenes together routinely take the film off-course.
Then comes the unexpected arrival of thirty-something Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of old acting friends of Axler. Gerwig gives Pegeen an awkward presence. Her flirtatious gambit is quickly followed by the admittance that she was estranged from her parents after taking a lesbian lover.
Inevitably, an affair between the older man and much younger woman eventually takes prominence, as it does in the source material. The ridiculous plot blighted the book and, despite Levinson’s efforts to phase out some of the novel’s excesses, he still struggles whenever he incorporates some of the the screwball elements into the plot. At no point does Pegeen and Axler relationship manages to feel convincing.
Levinson finds more success with the studious editing process, which finds scenes shifting between dramatic events in the present, Axler recounting the tale to his psychiatrist and Axler seemingly rehearsing moments to himself. In these final moments, Pacino’s performance recalls his contemporary Robert De Niro in “The King of Comedy.” As with that Scorsese film, “The Humbling” also ends as it begins, with Pacino delivering an acting master class. Whereas at the start of the film, it’s largely all talk, in the final scenes the actor excels on stage as King Lear. It’s apt finale, as these days — much like Axler — Pacino tends to reserve his best performances for the stage.
“The Humbling” premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival ahead of an upcoming engagement in Toronto. Millennium Films will release the movie later this year.