Movie Review: ‘THE HUMBLING’ or The Unexpected Virtue of Artistry

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Cole Clay // Film Critic


THE HUMBLING | 112 min. | Rated R
Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Al Pacino, Kyra Sedgwick, Greta Gerwig, Dylan Baker and Dianne Wiest

Washed up actor Simon Axler (Al Pacino) sits in front of his dressing room mirror waiting to take the stage for an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s AS YOU LIKE IT. The addled actor of both stage and screen psyches himself, but literally/purposefully falls flat on his face directly off the stage.

This darkly comic nugget is Barry Levinson’s THE HUMBLING. The same Barry Levinson who won the Oscar for director in 1988 for RAIN MAN. He just hasn’t had a critical hit since 1997’s jingoist political satire WAG THE DOG. You could say the same for the fleeting prestige of Al Pacino, an actor that held a gravitas for decades has since faded with blunders into self-parody such as RIGHTEOUS KILL and the all-time classic JACK & JILL. Pacino uses Axler’s convictions as an artist and citizen of planet Earth to internalize the issues. Pacino slowly turns a valve that relieves the pressure on his personal conflicts with friends, family (or lack there of) and now an unexpected affair with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the lesbian daughter of his old friends (Dan Hedaya, Dianne Wiest).

Based on the 2009 novel by the (now retired) Phillip Roth who received some of the worst reviews of his long and storied career. Using the faded artist looking for redemption schtick, Levinson and Pacino find a marriage that’s an arresting piece of self-pity.

Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino star in THE HUMBLING. Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.

Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino star in THE HUMBLING. Photo courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.

It’s easy to think that Roth crafted this novel as a self-indulgent dirty old man piece. However, Gerwig and Pacino don’t play their May-December relationship this way. She doesn’t use her typical plucky character traits to communicate Pegeen’s loving yet star-struck feelings for Axler. Likewise, Pacino isn’t going for broke trying to show off his chops to Levinson’s cavalier style of directing. I think these two finally just quit worrying about the minutiae, and surprisingly it just works.

In an early scene Axler drifts off into a daydream that has him getting locked outside of the theater just before he’s scheduled to take his cue. This sort of wistfulness and pain harkens Michael Keaton’s journey in BIRDMAN.

For all the positive aspects of THE HUMBLING, some scenes bog down the narrative. Take for example a series of Skype calls with Axler’s therapist (Dylan Baker) that are arbitrarily inserted for editing and style points. Pegeen’s transgendered ex-lover (Billy Porter) falls flat after a screaming match. Pacino, now in the twilight of his career was reported as being the one who got this shrewd project off the ground, maybe this could be the beginning of his own brand of “McConaissance.”

THE HUMBLING is playing in select theaters and is also available On Demand (Amazon).

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.