Al Pacino was once considered the greatest living actor. Some people still dispute that he still is the greatest living actor. I’m not so sure of that – I adore and admire Pacino, but he has become quite the critical punching bag, and to be perfectly honest, looking at some of his film choices lately, I don’t feel too sorry for him. Like his friend and contemporary, Robert De Niro, Pacino has been selling out and cashing in on who he is, rather than trying to give a great performance again. Its a sad, but true, fact – and considering the man made iconic films such as The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and Scarface – he surely is capable of more in these later stages of his career? What is even worse is how acclaimed he has been on TV and in theatre, but has yet to receive a film role that suits his talents. The Humbling does seem to try to be that film, but still not sure what to think of it.
The film is basically about Simon Axler (Pacino), an aging actor who is going through a major existential crisis, and after a botched suicide attempt, tries to reinvent himself by starting a relationship with his friend’s confused daughter, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) – but no one seems to approve, including Pegeen’s former girlfriend who became a man (Billy Porter), Pegeen’s vindictive, recently-dumped partner (Kyra Sedgwick) and Pegeen’s parents. It may sound like a relatively funny, straightforward comedy, but it is much more complex than that. It is so much more than that, with story points including Pegeen being Simon’s daughter, and Simon being stalked by a fellow mental patient who begs him to kill her husband.
The Humbling is a very dark, surreal romantic comedy. It is almost as if Barry Levinson wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with the material – it would have worked a lot better with a lighter tone and depended less on the dark aspects of the book. Pacino is a great actor, but as we have seen before, he can also be very funny. Here, despite the film being a comedy, Pacino is relatively sedate and…boring? He plays a typical grumpy old man, which is a shame because he is one of those actors that despite aging, still holds the energetic zest he had from his early days as an actor. Pacino’s opening monologue, and discussions with his therapist, are great master classes of acting, but unfortunately don’t do much to advance the story and make it more exciting. Pacino does do his best, and I won’t deny that this is Pacino’s best performance in over a decade. Greta Gerwig, who I love for her quirky personality in films such as Frances Ha, is actually very despicable here as Pegeen, a dreadfully vindictive and unlikable character who we fail to form any connection to. I really wish her performance was better, because Gerwig was truly underwhelming in a role that could’ve been a lot better.
The Humbling has no idea what it wants to be – it has some moments of great comedy, and it can be very interesting at certain points. It is a mostly amusing film, but it can be quite confusing (and not in a masterpiece kind of way) and very convoluted. It falls in that limbo between being a comedy and a drama. I really wanted more from this movie – it does try and be different and unique, and entertaining, but it is just nothing we haven’t seen before, and coming from a seasoned director like Levinson, one would expect a better film. Still, Pacino is its sole saving grace and I thought he did a great job with what he was given.