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Review: The Humbling (2015)

The Humbling (2015)

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Premise: Based on the novel by Philip Roth. An aged actor (Al Pacino) has trouble distinguishing between what is real and what is a fantasy. At the same time he begins a romance with a much younger woman (Greta Gerwig) who has a complicated sexual identity.

What Works: Observing Al Pacino’s career is an interesting study in a Hollywood actor gradually selling out and then recovering his artistry in the late period of his career. Many of Pacino’s early roles in movies like The Godfather and The Panic in Needle Park were very nuanced and he often participated in challenging projects. After his bombastic turn in Scarface, Pacino became a different kind of actor and he frequently emoted by yelling. Although this style of acting got him a Best Actor Oscar for 1992’s Scent of a Woman, Pacino’s career descended into self-parody, culminating with the 2011 Adam Sandler comedy Jack and Jill in which Pacino literally played himself. But in the last few years Pacino has been enjoying an underappreciated resurgence, taking on roles and playing them with the restraint that characterized his early work. Among the outstanding titles of Pacino’s late period is You Don’t Know Jack, a biopic of Jack Kevorkian. Pacino reunited with You Don’t Know Jack director Barry Levinson for The Humbling and while this is not as good as that film it is a much more ambitious project than much of Pacino’s middle catalog. This story of a man losing a grip on his sanity and coming to terms with his legacy as a performer benefits from the casting of Pacino; the actor brings the weight and trajectory of his career to the role. Like 2014’s Birdman, this is a story about what a life of make believe can do to a person’s sense of self and his or her grasp on reality. On the outset it appears as though The Humbling will work through the cliché premise of an older man rediscovering his vigor through a romance with a younger woman but the filmmakers do an effective job of offsetting the audience’s expectations. The film constantly has viewers guessing what is real and what isn’t. Part of the mystery is the sexual identity of his young love, played by Greta Gerwig. She is introduced as a lesbian but she enters into a relationship with this older man and transitions from a butch style to a feminine look. In lesser hands this could become a straight male fantasy but there is a lot of nuance to their relationship that makes the romance interesting instead of patronizing. The Humbling is also frequently funny in the dark sort of way that Barry Levinson has done well in Wag the Dog and Good Morning, Vietnam.

What Doesn’t: Not all of the elements of The Humbling quite come together. There are a lot of supporting characters and most of them have their own subplots but these B-storylines don’t always cohere with the rest of the narrative. One particularly underutilized subplot is the story of a disturbed woman played by Nina Arianda. While they are institutionalized, she tries to recruit Pacino’s character to kill her husband and after they are released she continues to pester him to do the deed. Why Pacino doesn’t call the authorities is mystifying; it could be that she is a delusion but it’s made fairly certain that she is real and the purpose of her character in the greater context of the story is unclear. The same is true of the parents of Greta Gerwig’s character, played by Dianne Wiest and Dan Hadaya. They are understandably upset about the relationship, especially since they are friends with Pacino’s character, but the film does not get enough out of these characters or make enough of their conflicts. In most movies these kinds of problems would be enough to derail the story but the fragmented nature of The Humbling is appropriate to its subject and adds some anarchic flavor to the picture.

DVD extras: A featurette and trailers.

Bottom Line: The Humbling has a rickety construction but that’s an inherent byproduct of its story premise. The film is an ambitious project that is mostly successful at what it is trying to do and it is another interesting entry in Al Pacino’s late period.

Episode: #538 (April 19, 2015)