Directed by: Barry Levinson.
Written by: Buck Henry and Michal Zebede based on the novel by Philip Roth.
Starring: Al Pacino (Simon Axler), Greta Gerwig (Pegeen Mike Stapleford), Kyra Sedgwick (Louise Trenner), Dianne Wiest (Peegan’s Mother), Charles Grodin (Jerry), Nina Arianda (Sybil), Dan Hedaya (Asa), Dylan Baker (Doctor).
Philip Roth is one of the greatest American writers of his generation, but The Humbling is not one of his great novels. It is a parade of misery for its main character that just adds one piece of horrible news after another until you cannot believe it and just start chuckling. It is, however, one of the easier books of Roth’s career to turn into a movie as it really is a rather simple story – which is perhaps why the filmmakers behind this film decided to do this film and not one of his masterpieces. And the filmmakers are smart enough to know that Roth’s parade of misery would need to be lighten a little to be made into a movie – and they have essentially turned it into a black comedy. The best thing the film has going for it is Al Pacino in the lead role of Simon Axler – an aging actor who has a humiliating moment on stage and retires from acting. Pacino, unlike many of his contemporaries, seems to still want to challenge himself in his old age – and he dives headlong into the role. He’s far better than the movie itself, and keeps it all interesting.
In the film, Axler falls off the stage while performing Shakespeare, and then, alone in his Connecticut home he tries to kill himself with a shotgun – and fails. He checks himself into a mental hospital for a month – where he meets the even crazier Sybil (Nina Arianda) who confesses her dark secrets to him – while all he can think about is whether or not she’s performing, and critiquing her interpretation of her life. Back in his home, there is a knock on the door, and on the other side is Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) – the daughter of his old friends who he hasn’t seen since she was 10 (in the novel she’s 40, I’m assuming she’s supposed to be a few years younger in the film). She always had a crush on Simon – and decides now is the time to act on it – despite the fact that she has spent the last 16 years living as lesbian. Soon she has moved herself in, and taken over his life.
Pacino is excellent in the role that takes him for suicidal despair to physical comedy craziness and everything in between. He may not exactly like all the insanity that Pegeen has introduced into his life – but at least it’s never boring. Whether it’s her former lover, the stalker, or another former lover, who has just had a sex change operation, or her angry, bitter parents, or other women that Pegeen brings to the house, his life in no longer the pit of despair it was. What Pegeen wants is for Simon to start acting again – and since he’s spending all of his money on her, he is pretty much going to need to anyway.
The movie is constantly engaging and interesting on a scene by scene level. You’re never quite sure what to expect, as the movie swings wildly from one extreme to the other, and sometimes includes Simon’s delusions, which he (and the audience) are never quite sure if they are real or not. Pacino is at the center of practically every scene, and holds our interest. The supporting cast is all in fine form – especially Dianne Wiest, who gets her best scene in years late in the movie, and Nina Arianda, who is completely unhinged, but in a pleasant way, as Sybil.
What holds the movie back however is the character of Pegeen. I don’t really fault Gerwig here – she gives it her all – but the movie, like the novel, doesn’t really know who she is, or why she’s doing what she’s doing it. She seems to exist only to drive Axler more insane, as every time he agrees to do what she wants him to do, she immediately undermines him, and drives him in the opposite direction. She is really more of a caricature of a typical Roth – or Woody Allen – woman who never becomes a believable character in the least.
This somewhat diminishes the movie, which nevertheless remains interesting and entertaining throughout – and one of the few times I would say that a movie is marked improvement over the novel that inspired it. It’s fun to see Pacino continuing to push himself, well after most of his 1970s colleagues have decided to either call it a career or else just phone in their performances. The Humbling is not a great movie – but it has a great performance at its core.