The Humbling opens with what must be the actor's version of a student's nightmare of showing up in school naked, late, and unprepared for a big test.
But instead of a test, the play's the thing in Barry Levinson's adaptation of Philip Roth's thirtieth and final novel as shortly into the movie, Al Pacino's over-the-hill actor with an axe to grind ― aptly named Simon Axler ― gives in to the nightmare and surrenders, falling not onto his own sword but onto the ground of the theater in an epic faceplant.
No doubt feeling a connection to the material that centers around the existential crisis of a charismatic actor who fears he's losing his gift as well as his sanity, Pacino ― who purchased the rights to the book years ago ― is predictably terrific in the part.
The problem is that the picture, which was shot in mere bits and pieces to accommodate the star's busy schedule, feels as chaotic and unstable as our unreliable narrator's mind.
While the episodic nature of the source material is partly to blame for the similarly episodic film that's forever changing in tone, it's the job of director (and uncredited scripter) Levinson and co-writers Buck Henry and Michal Zebede to find the best way to translate Roth's work to the screen.
Bearing more in common with a television miniseries than a book, a stage play, or a cohesive feature (despite its modest running time), the film is bolstered by the stellar supporting cast including a fine effort by Greta Gerwig in a similarly undefined role as a starstruck lustful lesbian siren who sees in the aged Axler the marquee man of her adolescent dreams.
Unfortunately, it wastes the talent of Rob the Mob scene stealer and Tony winner Nina Arianda and Emmy winner Kyra Sedgwick ― both of whom seem like they wandered in from the sets of two entirely different pictures shooting nearby.
Yet while The Humbling is guilty of losing its plot almost as much as its main character does, it still has its moments of daffy comedic brilliance.
One such highlight ― a romantic intervention led by Oscar winning Woody Allen dramedy veteran Dianne Wiest that takes place in a veterinarian's office ― is so delightfully off-the-wall that it makes you wish it would've served as the jumping off point for a whole new screenplay designed to illuminate the untapped comedic potential of Pacino who shines opposite Weist.
And indeed, it's scenes like that reaffirm the brilliance of character driven storytelling that both Levinson and Henry have done so well in the past (via Rain Man and To Die For respectively).
Still in the end, The Humbling is best appreciated as a humble, experimental hat-tip to the sanity testing calling of a thespian who'd rather die on the stage than be asked to live a life off of it ― stuck somewhere in limbo as both spectator and star without the adrenaline shot of thunderous applause.
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