Austin Film Festival 2014
By Linc Leifeste | October 24, 2014
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Buck Henry, Michal Zebede, Philip Roth (novel)
Starring: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Kyra Sedgwick, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin, Dylan Baker, Dan Hedaya, Nina Arianda, Billy Porter
Making its United States premiere as an Opening Night Film at the 2014 Austin Film Festival, director Barry Levinson’s The Humbling is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s final novel and tells the story of aging stage actor Simon Wexler (Al Pacino), who is losing both his craft and his sanity. Opening with Wexler applying makeup backstage, attempting to run lines while distractedly having conversations with himself, it quickly becomes apparent that this is an actor whose mental faculties are slipping. In a scene that is oddly reminiscent of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s highly superior Birdman, Wexler soon finds himself accidentally locked out of the theater just moments before his cue and frantically has to make his way around to try to enter the theater from the front. But just as the tension is building, we’re suddenly back in Wexler’s dressing room, realizing that the whole scene has been an hallucination.
Wexler rushes to stage, gives a halting disaster of a performance which ends with him landing face first after diving off the stage (again feeling very reminiscent of Birdman), landing him in the hospital. Upon his return home, he attempts suicide a la Hemingway but discovers that he can’t quite reach the trigger of the shotgun with the barrel in his mouth. Dark, funny stuff so far, but the early promise of the film’s opening doesn’t hold up past the film’s mid-point.
After spending time in a psychiatric facility, Wexler returns home a directionless shell of a man until his solitude is ended with a visit from Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of a former friend and co-star (Dianne Wiest). She confesses that she’s had a crush on him since she was a young girl and, despite being half his age and a lesbian, is eager to pursue a relationship. A bit befuddled but drawn in by the male fantasy being offered, Wexler gradually finds himself more and more desperate of her attention even as she drains his bank account. Sadly, despite Gerwig’s solid performance, Pegeen’s character is never fleshed out, with her penchant for sex toys and constant visits from former lovers only good for a few laughs. Part liberated sexual adventurer, part gold-digger, her relationship with Wexler and her behavior is puzzling and implausible, much like the second half of the film itself.
As the film progresses, it becomes more manic and oddball but ever less entertaining as a slew of supporting characters, none fully realized or developed, momentarily cross the screen. The film relies on Wexler’s daily Skype sessions with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker) as a tool to attempt to tie the narrative loose ends together. Levinson also displays a tiring knack for repeatedly tricking the viewers with scenes that start out believably enough before ultimately taking a turn for the more shocking or dramatic just before revealing that the whole thing has been yet another fantasy. As the film finally grinds to its cynical, numbing end, the only question that remains is who has been more truly humbled by the whole tragic farce, Pacino’s Wexler or the audience?