September 5, 2014

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto 2014 Review: “The Humbling”


THE HUMBLING (Millenium) – no release date set – Watch It At Home

THE HUMBLING wasn’t one of Philip Roth’s major novels, and Barry Levinson’s film, despite striking performances from Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig and some memorable moments of dark comedy, isn’t a major film either.

The script by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede is roughly faithful to the book, although it’s been tricked up with some is-this-really-happening frills.  Simon Axler (Pacino) is an acclaimed, successful, aging actor who suffers a meltdown on stage and checks himself into an institution.  When he emerges, he becomes reacquainted with Pegeen (Gerwig), a much younger woman who adored him as a little girl, when Simon performed with Pegeen’s mother (Dianne Wiest) and father (Dan Hedaya).  Although Pegeen has lived her adult life as a lesbian, she pursues a romance with Simon, who is revivified and tormented by her. He knows it will end badly, and it does.

The film, of course, is missing Roth’s narrative voice, and in particular his ability to get inside Simon’s head.  The sense of ruined obsessiveness that kept the novel going (such as it did) is mostly absent.  Pacino supplies, instead, a sort of vaudeville of depression (it’s as though he’s playing Beckett in his head instead of Roth), a deliberately actorish, sly tapdance about aging and oncoming death.  That, too, is part of The Humbling as a book, and it gives Pacino’s performance a very different pitch from the superficial work he’s given us too often in recent years–rather than being simply hammy, it’s a study of hamminess as a lifestyle choice.  It’s almost certainly no coincidence that one of Pacino’s other most substantial performances in the post-2000 era was with Levinson behind the camera, as Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack.  Levinson made the decision to shoot The Humbling very quickly and cheaply (probably similarly to the way the HBO movie had been shot), and that kind of schedule seems to spark something in Pacino.

Cheap, quick productions are nothing new for indie darling Gerwig, of course, but Levinson has also brought something new out of  her.  Pegeen was an impossible character in the book, and although she’s been somewhat softened in the script, Gerwig can’t make sense of her either.  But she also doesn’t give the role any of her neo-Diane Keaton mannerisms; Pegeen isn’t adorable or flighty.  It’s a thoroughly adult piece of work, and late in the film, when Simon and Pegeen finally go toe-to-toe at each other, Gerwig holds her own with Pacino, no mean feat.

There are other fine performances as well, from Wiest and Hedaya, from Billy Porter as an transsexual ex-love of Pegeen’s, and hilarious turns from Nina Arianda, as a woman Simon meets while institutionalized who makes him look healthy by comparison, and by Charles Grodin as Simon’s agent.  (Kyra Sedgwick makes a brief appearance as another of Pegeen’s former conquests, even more of a cipher than the character was in the book.)  Despite the low budget, The Humbling is handsomely made, with near-sepia photography from Adam Jandrup and a jaunty Marcelo Zarvos score.

The Humbling is intelligent and engrossing, but effectively in only a fragmentary way:  too much concerned with its strange romance to be the meditation on aging and acting that it seems to want to be, and too haunted by death to be much of a love story, even a mordant one.  It’s for those who can appreciate a worthy but imperfect labor of love.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."