The first time we see aging actor Simon Axler (Al Pacino), he’s reciting the famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It to himself as he preps to go on stage; at the same time, he’s questioning if his performance is believable. Director Barry Levinson shoots and edits this sequence so that we’re barely able to comprehend when we are seeing the real Simon and when we’re simply looking at his reflection. It’s a smart creative decision, as we quickly learn that the 67-year-old man knows he’s having trouble telling the difference between his own personality and the parts he’s playing. This existential problem provides the thematic center for The Humbling, a darkly comic look at growing old.
During a performance that night, Simon, in a suicidal impulse, swan dives into an empty orchestra pit; not long after that, he tries to end his life with a shotgun à la Hemingway. When that fails as well, he checks himself into a 30-day sanitarium. There, he begins counseling with Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker) and makes the acquaintance of Sybil (Nina Arianda), a fellow patient full of murderous rage toward her husband.
After his monthlong stay, he returns home and informs his agent (Charles Grodin) that he doesn’t want to work again—he’s convinced he’s lost his talent. Then Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the grown daughter of his longtime acting friends, appears at his door, and the two forge a relationship that, at first, seems to be everything he wants. But Pegeen eventually proves to be gloriously unstable, and Simon’s limited grasp on reality starts to doom this new romance.
If nothing else, The Humbling is worth seeing just to watch the interplay between Pacino and Gerwig. They’re both incredibly naturalistic actors, capable of making you feel that the camera is secretly recording real human beings during intimate moments. The section of the movie in which they begin their May-December romance is full of little moments of acting joy, and we’ve been cued to pay close attention to these performances because Simon is obsessed with being “real.” One of the movie’s funniest scenes comes when, after his fall, he’s wheeled on a gurney through a hospital and keeps asking the nurse if she thinks his moans of pain are real or “too big.”
All of the actors get wonderful moments. Kyra Sedgwick shows up as Pegeen’s obsessed former lover; Dianne Wiest, playing Pegeen’s mother, gets a killer final monologue that lays Simon bare; and Grodin plays the agent’s low-key sleaziness to comic perfection. The cast are so good, and script contains so many monologues, that The Humbling feels less like a Barry Levinson film than it does one of those little-seen projects Pacino has involved himself in throughout his career. It’s closer to The Local Stigmatic than Wag the Dog.
On the surface, The Humbling might seem like a farce about old age and acting. However, it was made by people who understand this theme quite well: It was adapted from a novel by Philip Roth (who was 75 when it was published), directed by the 72-year-old Levinson, co-written by the 84-year-old Buck Henry, and stars the 74-year–old Pacino. As a result, a sense of doom hangs over the movie, even when it’s quite funny. These great artists are confronting their own mortality, and as the title makes clear, recognizing how their own egos have led them astray on occasion. If Ingmar Bergman had made Birdman, the result might look a whole lot like The Humbling.