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

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.