The once-great actor, now just shy of washed up, sits in his dressing room at the Broadway theater, talking to himself. He finally gets his call and heads down to the stage, only to get locked out of the theater on the way down, sent around to the front of the house like some kind of audience member or something. This actor’s nightmare is a key early sequence in… The Humbling, Barry Levinson’s new adaptation of Philip Roth’s penultimate novel, starring Al Pacino. Yes, Levinson’s film, which opens quietly in a few markets and on demand this Friday, has the misfortune of debuting dangerously close to Birdman, a film with which it unquestionably suffers in comparison. But like Birdman, it offers the tantalizing opportunity to watch a great actor sorting through perception and persona by playing fiction that feels like fact.
Which is not to say that’s a great movie; for many long stretches, it’s not even a particularly good one. The trouble is the source material, for Roth has provided not just the story of a has-been actor who bottoms out, but one who then falls into a relationship with a lusty lesbian young enough to be his daughter. She’s played about as well as can be expected by Greta Gerwig, with a spiky edge that we seldom see in her sunnier turns, but she can only do so much with lines like “I don’t think you fucked the lesbian outta me yet” and, at the beginning of the affair, “This officially marks the end of my 16-year mistake.” (There’s an unsurprising whiff of homophobia — and later, a shot of transphobia — to this subplot.)
Maybe this stuff works in the book, but in the end, The Humbling is one of those movies where the “plot” is far less interesting than what the movie is “about” — and in this case, it’s about acting in general and Al Pacino in particular. After all, this is one of our finest actors, an icon who inspired and influenced a generation of talent, yet has morphed into something beyond even self-parody. (Self-parody was apparently what he was attempting when he played “Al Pacino” in Jack & Jill, and couldn’t even do that convincingly.) Sure, you can mount a defense citing the steep decline in mainstream entertainment from Pacino’s heyday to the present, but even that argument doesn’t excuse the sleepwalking likes of Righteous Kill, 88 Minutes, Stand Up Guys — of, frankly, most of his recent filmography.
If you’re in the audience of The Humbling, you’re probably (at the very least) an Al Pacino admirer, so you know all of this. What’s interesting and even, occasionally, a little unnerving about watching The Humbling is the realization that Pacino knows you know all of this. It’s not just the general actor-contemplating-actor business that opens the movie, as he applies his make-up, riffs on the “all the world’s a stage” monologue, and growls at his reflection, “Do you believe that? Was it real for you? Was it honest?” And, even more pointedly, “Were you affecting it, or are you really saying it?”
That’s compelling, sure, but not necessarily direct. However, after his character has a breakdown on stage, swan dives into the pit, and goes into counseling for depression, the line between portrayal and confession begins to blur. Pacino has a long, searching monologue — shot in a single unbroken take — in a group therapy session where he admits, “The fall was gradual. It started when I lost track of what I call my craft… It just started to recede, mainly the desire, the apetite to do it.” The audience, he acknowledges, “didn’t wanna participate with me,” and as a result, he lost his juice. The longer he goes on, and the more painful and personal the soliloquy becomes, the more the border between character and actor evaporates.
The past year or so has been oddly flush with cinematic romans à clef, from the aforementioned Birdman to Chris Rock’s nakedly autobiographical Top Five, and their ability to engage with at least a portion of the audience is probably a byproduct of our personality-obsessed entertainment press and a cultural environment where everything is, basically, a reality show. In that way, these films become more participatory and less passive, inviting us to connect the fiction and non-fiction dots; some will smile when they mention that Riggan made his last Birdman movie in 1992 (the year of Batman Returns’ release), or when Chris Rock acknowledges his frequent bad reviews in Top Five.
It’s easy to imagine that movie stars and movie makers breathe rarefied air, live in bubbles, and all the other clichés that dramatize a kind of physical removal from the likes of us common folk. Pacino might not hear the criticisms, the murmurs of disappointments from those of us who love the actor he was, and miss him. But the monologue makes clear that he’s at least self-aware enough to make them himself. “I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I can only do something I am creatively connected to,” Pacino told The New Yorker last fall, as The Humbling unspooled at Toronto — along with Manglehorn, a low-key drama from David Gordon Green (no slouch at bringing lost actors back home). Near the end of The Humbling, at his lowest depth, in a cramped dressing room, Pacino finds the words, finds his voice, and finds himself. For all its flaws, that’s what the movie does. And hopefully, that’s what the actor has done as well.
The Humbling is out Friday in limited release and on demand.