the humbling3 stars

Movie Review: The Humbling

by Jason Koenigsberg

Director: Barry Levinson

Al Pacino is one of the greatest actors of his generation. The last decade and a half of his career has not been the kindest to him with career choices from ill conceived (Two for the Money), to inept (88 Minutes), to downright unwatchable (Jack and Jill). The twilight of his career has had a few highlights and one of the biggest was his role as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the 2010 HBO film You Don’t Know Jack.


His newest film The Humbling reunites Pacino with Barry Levinson, the man who directed You Don’t Know Jack. Levinson, much like Pacino, has also had a rough time in recent decades. Let’s face it, a Ben Stiller-Jack Black comedy Envy (2004) is a far cry from Good Morning Vietnam (1987) or Rain Man (1988), the latter won Best picture, and Levinson the Academy Award for Best Director.

On the surface The Humbling is an ideal vehicle for these two past their prime film icons. It is the story of a has-been actor (Pacino) struggling to maintain his relevance on the stage. After a collapse, literally, into the orchestra pit, he is forced to go to his house in Connecticut for rest and relaxation under doctor’s supervision. While resting in his home he meets a beautiful young woman (Greta Gerwig) who is the daughter of one of his old actor friends and they start a May-December romantic affair. Her former lover (Kyra Sedgwick) as well as her parents (Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya) finds out about their relationship and problems ensue. While all this is going on Pacino and his agent (Charles Grodin) are trying to find him suitable acting work after his meltdown.

The plot may sound humdrum and it is. Despite that The Humbling is a rather strong portrait of loneliness and is probably autobiographical for the director Levinson, star Pacino and its screenwriters Buck Henry and Michael Zebede (based on the novel by Philip Roth). Their life and career experiences add depth and reality to what is otherwise a basic and at times flimsy story.

The Humbling has a very good opening scene with Pacino interestingly shot preparing to go on stage in his dressing room. That scene and the majority of the movie are reminiscent of Birdman, which is still playing and earning many awards. They are both about has-been actors trying to remain relevant in their careers as they struggle in their personal life. Although this picture is not nearly as powerful and innovative as Birdman it is still a worthwhile endeavor and provides Pacino the chance to give a very good performance, there have been too few of those in recent years.

Greta Gerwig also delivers another memorable performance and continues to work in unusual pictures. She has established a reputation as an indie darling and is always reliable in quirky and atypical roles. This is another one she can add to her resume. She is excellent opposite Pacino.

Also noteworthy in this picture is actress Nina Arianda, as Sybil. A woman Pacino’s character meets while he is staying in a mental health facility who then stalks him to try and get her to kill her husband because she saw him do it in a movie and he was so convincing. These scenes are really the heart of The Humbling because this is where Pacino’s character is trying to help someone else deal with fiction from reality. This is ironic because in all of his other scenes Pacino is the one having trouble dealing with reality.

In a way these moments reminded me of The Wrestler (2008) when Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram character only felt alive when he was in the ring, much like Pacino’s character only feels things are real when he is on stage performing for an audience. Philosophy scholars can really run with this concept and delve into Plato’s Cave Allegory. 

I will just say that The Humbling does a very good job making you sympathize with has-been characters coping with delusions. It is more surreal than The Wrestler, though not as bizarre and dreamlike as Birdman (2014) or Black Swan (2010) but very similar to them thematically nor is it as great as the movies I mentioned, but it is worth seeing if you have a few hours to spare. It was very relieving to see Pacino excel in a challenging role again.

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