Dismissed during its film festival run thanks to some undeniable, yet pretty surface level similarities to the flashier Birdman, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling is now barely squeaking out a theatrical release. That’s a shame because while the film is ramshackle and confusing (deliberately so), it’s also easily the best thing that Levinson and his star Al Pacino, have made in years; not to mention the only movie that confirmed genius Buck Henry has written in over a decade. It’s a willfully difficult viewing experience and also an incredibly funny and entertaining one. It’s full of delicious contradictions worth pontificating or giggling over for quite some time. Admittedly, the movie is pretty much designed to alienate any viewer who doesn’t immediately fall into its peculiar wavelength. But hey, the three old guys responsible for The Humbling have earned the right to make one for them, especially when it’s such an unconventionally poignant examination of being an old guy.
Pacino stars as a beloved actor in the midst of a raging mental breakdown. He opens the film going through a minor meltdown and existential crisis backstage before a big performance. Then he heads out on stage, struggles through a couple lines and swan dives straight into the orchestra. It’s safe to say that the man isn’t doing very well. In fact, he’s doing poorly enough that his crusty and trusty manager (Charles Grodin, yet another old guy who is great to see on the screen again) insists that he head out to a mental health retreat. Once there, he meets up with a number of delightful nuts, like a woman played by Nina Arianda who asks Pacino to kill her ex-husband because she saw him play a murderer in a movie one time. After that, Pacino heads out to his isolated home where he’s visited by a number of oddballs who may or may not even be there. The big one is his goddaughter (Greta Gerwig) who finally consummates her childhood infatuation with the old man. With her comes a series of jealous ex-girlfriends and some raging parents (including the much missed Dianne Wiest). Outside of that there are regular Skype chats with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker) that never seem to go anywhere.
The Humbling isn’t some sort of thrilling action movie or easily digested bit of feel good fluff. It’s an odd little movie that’s difficult to pin down until it’s complete and all the more fascinating for it. Levinson’s visual approach is to mirror the crumbling mind of his protagonist. Jagged handheld cameras keep things off balance, while fractured editing dips in and out of Pacino’s cracked perspective to keep the audience from ever being able to distinguish reality from delusion. It’s a tricky and twisted film, transforming the pains of aging and foggy memory into straight up tragic psychosis. The results are painful and yet, neither Levinson nor his screenwriter Buck Henry (adapting a loathed Philip Roth novel) can keep a straight face. Their intent is truthful and harsh, but the presentation is playful, satirical, and sardonic. Call it a “spoonful of sugar” softening if you want to be cynical, but truthfully the humor sharpens the sting of the material while also curbing away from Roth’s more unpleasant and vaguely sexist source.
At the center of it all is Pacino giving quite possibly his finest performance in decades. The character allows him to explode in a few well-timed “wailing Al” moments, while mostly shriveling himself up into a tiny sad sack of a man and playing small. It’s a role that uses all of Pacino’s skills and even tosses in a little Shakespeare at the end (Pacino gets to play King Lear in The Humbling, both in a play-within-a-movie and just in general). He rises to the occasion, passes it, and gives all of late-career Pacino lovers and loathers something to chew on. Everyone surrounding Pacino spars well in acting duos and even steal a few scenes, but The Humbling is really The Al Pacino Show and he provides more than enough bang for the ticket price. Well, maybe that’s not quite right. It’s The Al Pacino, Barry Levinson, and Buck Henry Show. All of their interests and talents are represented well here. It’s a collision of three old showbiz guys with nothing left to prove trying to comedically, dramatically, and philosophically explore the pain of what it means to be an old showbiz guy. Inside baseball? Sure. Limited appeal? You betcha. But for anyone who has followed the career of Pacino, Levinson, or Henry this far, The Humbling has to be seen. It likely won’t be the last movie made by any of them, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be their swansong and a pretty damn good one too.