Saturday, January 17, 2015

Al Pacino's back in Barry Levinson's THE HUMBLING -- for better and for worse

What a frustrating experience is THE HUMBLING, the new film from director Barry Levinson, with a screenplay by Buck Henry from the novel of the same name by Philip Roth. Interesting, sometimes riveting -- but only in fits and starts -- the film also gives Al Pacino a juicy role which he alternately embraces and makes mincemeat of. He is not helped by Mr. Levinson, who at times seems to have deliberately decided to work in distance or long shots when what is so clearly called for is a close-up (though the director might have worried that his scenery-chewing star would once again decimate the drapes). Whatever: The Humbling might be better titled, The Fumbling.

The real problem, however, is most likely due to the source material itself. I haven't read Roth's novel, but the mostly negative criticism of it -- absurd, slight, disposable, ill conceived, and simply going-through-the-motions -- also reflects the state of this movie version. Over the years, Mr. Levinson (shown at left) has excelled in a variety of genres -- from drama to comedy to horror (see his very good and frightening film, The Bay, if you haven't already). Perhaps here, working with such a problematic tale, he has simply let it "wag" him, rather than the necessary reverse. Or it may be that a movie that jumps so many genres, as this one does, is simply not part of Levinson's metier.

But let's start with the good things, including Pacino, who, even when he's over-doing it, proves fun and often funny. Given his professed love of Shakespeare and the nice job he did with Shylock, one easily identifies with the character he plays here, Simon Axler, renowned stage actor who has recently had a bad few years.

Then there's Greta Gerwig (at right), who certainly comes into her own in the role of Pegeen, a needy, messed-up adult who, as a child, had been enamored of Simon and now comes back into his life as a possible -- if highly unlikely -- love interest. Ms Gerwig plays pretty much a femme fatale (or at least a femme maudite) here, but she manages to keep us, as she does Simon, off-balance, alternate-ly charmed and annoyed.

Somewhat wasted (due to her tiny role), Kyra Sedgwyck, above, still impresses with her strength and anger, while Diane Wiest and Dan Hedeya (below, right and left, respectively) provide some humor, as well as additional back-story.

Of the entire cast, it's probably Charles Grodin (below, left) who best nails his small role as Simon's agent, followed by Nina Arianda (at bottom, right), who has the most preposterous role of all, but manages to make it seem at least possible, if not probable. The movie might have worked better has Gerwig and Arianda switched roles: The former's easy goofiness might have better served the maybe-crazy/maybe-not wife, while the latter's drive and heavy-duty acting chops might have turned Pegeen into something approaching memorable.

As it is, the movie meanders from incident to incident, emotion to emotion, stopping for something real and then something ridiculous -- finally leaving all its characters, especially Simon, hanging out to dry. The Humbling has a lot in common with another recent movie about actors and acting: Birdman, which offers fine performances, fluid camerawork and simply no point -- no "there" there -- at all. (Both films, in fact, have a scene in which our heroic actor gets locked of his theater during a performance.)

From Millennium Entertainment (recently renamed Alchemy, which had better get -- and fast -- a decent web site up and running) and lasting a little too long at 112 minutes, The Humbling, which may humble some of those involved here, opens this coming Friday, January 23, in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 -- and elsewhere, too, though nothing has yet been posted as yet on the movie's site. Check back in a few days, and maybe someone will have updated the thing. Also, as I understand it from the web site, the film will be available simultaneously via VOD and digital streaming.

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