By Don Simpson | March 2, 2015
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Philip Roth, Buck Henry, Michal Zebede
Starring: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Kyra Sedgwick, Dan Hedaya, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin, Dylan Baker, Nina Arianda, Li Jun Li, Billy Porter
Told from Simon Axler’s (Al Pacino) skewed perspective, The Humbling takes place within the aging actor’s rapidly deteriorating mind following a presumed suicide attempt (to the tune of Shakespeare’s As You Like It). After a brief stint in the sanitarium, Simon returns to his lonely Connecticut bachelor pad from where he must check in with his therapist (Dylan Baker) via Skype on a regular basis. Drifting in and out of lucidity, when Simon is not misremembering recent events, he is forgetting them altogether. A reliable narrator, Simon is not…
It is difficult to tell if Simon’s late-life crisis is helped or hindered by the sudden reappearance of his goddaughter, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), into his life. Pegeen freely admits that she has had a crush on Simon since before she reached puberty. Despite being a lesbian and almost four decades his junior, Pegeen seeks to live out her childhood fantasy; yet, what she sees in the fragile and forgetful near-septuagenarian, no one will ever know (heck, for all we know, their entire relationship could only exist in Simon’s head).
Simon is afraid to return to acting after his embarrassing stage dive, yet he is much too proud to accept a commercial gig. It is clear is that Simon wants to hold onto the success of his past and remain relevant despite his heightened age. Simon not only wants people to continue to remember him, but he wants them to continue to recognize him as a great actor. The worst blow to Simon’s confidence is learning that no one would be interested if he wrote a memoir.
While The Humbling spotlights an uncharacteristically low-key performance by Pacino, the absentminded narrative approach muddles the story into a convoluted string of nonsensical mumblings. History has taught us that Philip Roth’s novels do not translate well into films. Like most of Roth’s writing, The Humbling seems almost too cerebral and internalized to be captured effectively with cinematic images. Maybe they should not have never attempted the impossible, but it is still hard to blame director Barry Levinson or his screenwriters (Buck Henry and Michal Zebede) for trying.