'The Humbling' is a marvelous black comedy with deadpan flair

'Humbling' stars Al Pacino as a celebrated stage actor for whom acting has become a sham. 

Courtesy of Christie Mullen/EPK TV
Faded stage actor Simon Axler (Al Pacino) stumbles through a complex relationship with teacher Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) in 'The Humbling.'

In the marvelous black comedy “The Humbling,” based on the 2009 Philip Roth novel, Al Pacino plays 67-year-old Simon Axler, a celebrated stage actor for whom acting has become a sham. “You go out there night after night and lie to them” is how he puts it. When he deliberately swan dives into the orchestra pit during a production of “As You Like It,” he becomes a Broadway joke – a flop-sweat “Spider-Man.” Miserable, he checks into a high-class rehab facility, where his newfound prattle about “losing his craft” finds a fresh audience. 

When Pacino was interviewed in Toronto at the film’s première, he spoke about Simon’s crackup: “He starts to lose it and he wants to go back to peace and to a life, which he’s never had. Now for some reason there’s something we find funny about that, an actor wanting to be a real person.”

The central joke in “The Humbling,” which was directed with great deadpan flair by Barry Levinson and written by Buck Henry and Michael Zebede, fits Pacino’s observation: Here is a thoroughgoing actor who can’t dispel his theatrics even when he is at his most “real.” Wheeled into the hospital after suffering that stage fall, he moans on the gurney and then looks up at the nurse and asks her if she thinks his moan sounded “believable.” Near the end of the film, bereft after a lover walks out on him, he cries out, “Come back, come back” and then, out of the blue, “Come back, Shane!” Simon is never so much an actor as when he is not acting.

Simon may wish to hide away, but his celebrity precedes him. At the rehab facility he finds himself badgered by Sybil (Nina Arianda), a nut-case society woman who believes her husband molested their daughter and wants Simon to kill him because she once saw Simon play a killer in a movie. For a while, post-rehab, even after Sybil tracks him down at his Connecticut mansion, Simon holds a baffled tenderness for this woman – a fellow sufferer and over-actor. Simon’s spirits are so low that he doesn’t think he deserves to be stalked.

Of the many turns “The Humbling” takes, the screwiest is also the most heartfelt. Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), who teaches at a local women’s college, shows up on Simon’s doorstep and insinuates herself romantically into his life despite the fact that she’s gay and half his age and she hasn’t seen him since her parents acted with him when she was a star-struck 10-year-old. What saves this development from the “dirty old man” accusations that Roth’s novel invited is that Pegeen is in charge at all times. For Simon, who regards himself as a “love cliché,” this relationship fits his fatalism even as it lifts his spirits. “I picked the right one,” he says. “She’s bound to leave me.”

One of the reasons I like this movie so much more than “Birdman,” which was also about a life in the theater, is that, at least until near the end, when it devolves into a reality-game head-scratcher, it doesn’t take itself tremendously seriously. Movies about theater people are often at their best when massive egos are on full parade – that is to say, when they’re funny. I laughed more during this film than at any other I’ve seen in a long time. One scene in particular, when Simon, at the vet, is mistakenly injected with a horse tranquilizer, is a classic. This actor who prizes himself on his thundering diction is bewildered, not altogether unpleasantly, by his newfound slurriness.

All of the actors are at their comic peak. Gerwig, who can be overbearingly raffish, is perfect here. Pegeen is both Simon’s muse and tormentor. Arianda’s Sybil has the righteous, bright-eyed conviction of the truly deranged. Perfect, too, are Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya as Pegeen’s aghast parents, and Charles Grodin as Simon’s exasperated agent, who complains that Simon’s box-strewn mansion looks as if he just moved into it, even though he’s lived there for 14 years. 

This is not one of Pacino’s over-the-top hoo-ha performances. He’s startlingly low-key most of the time, almost subterraneanly so. Simon’s life has become a burlesque, and he takes it all in with a weary aplomb. He discovers there is more to life than acting and, in so doing, he wades into life’s messiness – the stuff that acting protected him from.

“The Humbling,” which is a richer and more comic experience than the novel, wouldn’t work without a star who loves acting every bit as much as Simon claims to loathe it. Unlike most of his contemporaries (most conspicuously Robert De Niro), Pacino still gets a blast out of acting. His performance in this film about a blocked performer is gloriously unblocked – a valentine to vanity. Grade: A- (Rated R for sexual material, language, and brief violence.)

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