Movie Review: “The Humbling” Is Uninspired And Tedious

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An aged and addled actor has his world turned upside down after he embarks upon an affair with a lesbian, in this acidulous adaptation of the Philip Roth novel.

Review by James McDonald

The last great performance I felt Al Pacino gave, was back in the 2003 mini-series “Angels in America.” The last great performance I felt he gave in a movie, was back in 1999 with “The Insider” where he co-starred with Russell Crowe. Since 1999, he has made a lot of movies so suffice to say, when a celebrated and Oscar-winning actor’s last great performance was almost 16 years ago, then something is not right and let’s just forget that “Jack and Jill” was ever made, for Pacino and Adam Sandler’s sake as Sandler hasn’t made a decent flick in years either. For me, Pacino’s last truly great performance was in the final chapter of the Godfather series in 1990 with “The Godfather: Part III.” I know the die-hard fans of the trilogy pretty much disown Part III but I thoroughly enjoyed it and Pacino was back in top form as an aging Michael Corleone.

The director of “The Humbling” is Barry Levinson, the man responsible for some truly great American movies, “Good Morning Vietnam,” “Rain Man” and “Bugsy,” to name but a few. Here though, both he and Pacino appear to be sleepwalking through the entire movie. The film was so disjointed, it literally felt like the two men decided to make a movie together but with no cohesive story in mind, they opted to make it on the fly, improvising every single scene as they went along. Improvisation can be a great element for an actor of Pacino’s stature but when there is no structured storyline to accompany it, the whole narrative falls down and everything suffers as a result. Even with the additions of some great character actors such as Charles Grodin, Dylan Baker and Kyra Sedgwick, they cannot save this jumbled mess.

“The Humbling” is based on a novel by Philip Roth and tells the story of an aging stage actor whose empty life is altered by a ‘counterplot of unusual erotic desire.’ Pacino plays Axler, an eccentric theater actor who seems to have lost his gift for performing and decides to retire to the confines of his mansion in the country, where he speaks with his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), on a daily basis via video conference. Contemplating suicide, Farr suggests that he check into a psychiatric hospital for a period of time and while there, he meets Sybil Van Buren (Nina Arianda), a beautiful but certifiable patient who enlists Axler to help kill her husband as she found him abusing her young daughter. Axler refuses, stating that he would probably screw everything up.

He eventually goes back home and shortly afterwards, a beautiful young woman appears on his doorstep. Initially, he doesn’t recognize her but then he remembers who she is, Pegeen Mike Stapleford (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of two friends of his that he used to tour with back in the day. She pretty much invites herself in and while they gradually become intimate, she has no qualms telling him that she is a lesbian but for as long as she can remember, she always had a crush on him. As the story progresses, people from Pegeen’s past begin to mysteriously appear, Prince (Billy Porter), who used to be a girl but had a sex change, can’t let go of the relationship they once shared and Louise Trenner, (Kyra Sedgwick), a woman who was briefly involved with Pegeen, calls Axler all the time, informing him that Pegeen is bad news and will tear his heart out.

On top of this, Sybil continues to appear at the most awkward moments, demanding that he kill her husband and then Pegeen’s parents appear and demand that he stay away from her and sporadically, we witness the death of a major character or the announcement that Axler could very well be someone he’s not, only for them to be figments of his imagination and there is so much unnecessary drama and tragedy, you wish that Pacino and Levinson had instead filmed the production of ‘Macbeth’ that starts the movie that Axler is performing in. Pacino literally looks and sounds bored and maybe he made the movie as a favor to his agent or indeed the director himself but what’s for certain is that he is so far away from the greatness that he once possessed, like Nicolas Cage, you wonder if he’ll ever find his niche again and give a performance that will rival and maybe even surpass anything from his past.

In theaters now

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James McDonald
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