Nailing a Philip Roth adaptation is like going after the great white whale. No one’s sure success is possible and pursuing it usually comes at a cost. In The Humbling, it’s Barry Levinson and Al Pacino who don their captain’s gear to go all Ahab on one of the author’s final novels only to emerge as Ishmael. Led by Pacino’s devastating performance, it’s the best Roth has ever been on film.
Pacino plays Simon Axler, a fading actor who’s losing his craft. Once the master of stage and screen, he can now barely work out when he’s performing. After bombing on stage, or more accurately bombing off it, he checks into a home to recover from his breakdown. Gathering up a therapist and an eccentric stalker, he returns home only to walk straight into a relationship with his formerly lesbian goddaughter Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) who brings more baggage than a Thomas Cook package holiday, a burden that does not help slow his descent from reality.
The problem with Roth, one that often applies to adapting novelists but is exaggerated given his writing style, is that so much unfolds in the head of his protagonist. The Humbling’s biggest achievement is its ability to counteract this by allowing Pacino to ramp up his normal persona. He stares uncomfortably, moans, groans, pratfalls and employs confused self-deprecation. To further oil the wheels, he’s given plenty of opportunity to launch into monologue or quote from previous stage performances.
Less successful is Gerwig. Where Pacino gets to blow his character out of all normal proportion, she’s stuck in a track that’s starting to feel all too familiar. Her Pegeen is a whirlwind of charm, immaturity and seduction living just outside the mainstream. The character serves a purpose but Pegeen is most successful when we’re watching Simon deal with the aftermath, be it mounting bills or a parade of ex-lovers. In fact, The Humbling is most successful when we are simply watching Pacino work his magic. Pegeen gives him purpose, pushing him back to the stage but he’s equally good value emoting to his therapist or trying to dissuade the mentally unstable woman who wants him to murder her husband from coming round.
It’s this portrait of a life in decline that gives the bite to Pacino’s bark. He’s a man losing the only thing he could ever do with no back up in place. Desperation to cling onto diminishing powers has broken the fragile grip he had on life. Yet there is also a strong current detectable, not for the first time at Venice this year, exploring the damage a life lived in front of an audience has on the life lived in private, and the problems that come when those gazing up in awe no longer seem so struck. So how can that flame be reignited? Well, The Humbling is a pretty good start.
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Buck Henry (screenplay), Philip Roth (novel), 1 more credit »
Stars: Al Pacino, Kyra Sedgwick, Greta Gerwig