The Humbling is one greasy ham of a film. It has no plan. It has no skill. It knows no volume. When director Barry Levinson senses the audience is recognizing how little his film has to offer, he has his actors yell and ramble. Not many movies get more annoying than The Humbling.
I had found a redeeming quality in Levinson’s film, and I desperately hoped that detail would grow into the movie’s unbreakable backbone. Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, an exhausted actor known for his inconsistencies and current feebleness to maintain his credible stature in his old age.
There’s an important scene after a lumbering monologue by Pacino that has Axler performing on stage and losing his focus. He’s distracted by the audience members who are just as tired of the play as he is. Patrons staring at their phones and playbills signifies to Simon just how painful being neglected is. He shortly realizes how useless a fight would be to try winning back his audience. He ambles about, and crashes into an empty orchestra pit.
This provides some semblance of bedrock for Levinson to mould a character study with, and supplies screenwriters Buck Henry and Michal Zebede with solid stepping stones to raise the stakes and add tragedy to a crumbling persona who’s losing his mystification. However, that takes a lot of work, y’see. And it’s obvious from watching these squawking characters run around in their own personal vicious circles that no one making the movie had any intention to break a sweat facing any sort of challenges.
The Humbling is so aimless and uncertain that at times I was unsure whether Levinson meant for humour to arise during heated confrontations. It’s one of those projects where you picture the filmmaker lounging behind a monitor and letting nature take its course. If the shocking reactions get a chuckle, so be it. But when the film’s temperature is in a content state of unsteadiness amidst abrupt tonal changes, the audience becomes as confused and frazzled as the mess we’re witnessing on screen. Perhaps all of this is made out to be a lot clearer in Philip Roth’s novel of which this film is based on.
Pacino’s leading performance is loony, which is – unfortunately – a given. It’s as if he’s off doing his own “thing” and Levinson has given the actor too much of his trust. Greta Gerwig brings the same pixie electricity she has brought to other movies before, except The Humbling translates her bubbly, free spirit into something more piercing and unruly. Dylan Baker, Dan Hedaya, Dianne Wiest, and Charles Grodin pop up as supporting characters but are given nothing to do but look bewildered.
The choppy, interrupting narrative suggests that Levinson has watched too many Jonathan Demme movies, and the filmmaker’s artistic eye matches Lars Von Trier’s provoking pushiness awash in a grainy atmosphere. Nothing in The Humbling is original, impressive, or accomplished. If only there was an empty orchestra pit for this ambling movie to fall into.