The Humbling (2014)

The Humbling (2014)
  • Time: 112 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Barry Levinson
  • Cast: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Dianne Wiest


An aged and addled actor has his world turned upside down after he embarks upon an affair with a lesbian, in this acidulous adaptation of the Philip Roth novel.


  • “All the world’s a stage,” Simon Axler (Al Pacino) utters in the opening moments of The Humbling. Axler is thirty minutes away from taking the stage in a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and he is backstage, dialoguing with his reflection, scrutinising his delivery to adjust any inauthentic notes. Simon is always “on” – he modulates his moans to assess if a nurse believes his pain as he’s being wheeled into the hospital, and internally rates the performance of a woman sharing her all too real tale of woe – and when he finds the audience detached during his performance, he throws himself off the stage and lands splat in the orchestra pit.

    That act, and the fumbled suicide attempt that follows, lands him thirty days at the Hammerton treatment community, where he confesses to having lost control of his craft, something that’s always come naturally to him. What’s more, Simon tells his psychiatrist Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), “I’ve come to the realisation that I’m having trouble separating a scene from a play with the realities in real life.” Simon’s not the only one having difficulties with the distinction. One of the other patients, Sybil (Nina Arianda), having seen him kill in so many of his movies, tries to enlist him to do away with her husband, who’s been sexually abusing their young daughter. Though Simon demurs, she keeps pressing the matter even stalking him after his stint is over and he’s returned to the confines of his Connecticut home, where his things still remain in half-unpacked boxes and crates even though he’s been living there for more than a decade.

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  • Barry Levinson’s The Humbling starts with the Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It and ends on King Lear. That is, it begins with the comic context of all the various roles we play in our lives on earth, then closes on our tragic end.
    Simon Axler (Al Pacino) is an actor who lives through the doubts, uncertainties and increasing debility that characterize us all. In the opening scene he appears on opposite sides of the screen, debating himself on the effectiveness of his delivery. When he’s wheeled into the hospital he has the same uncertainty, trying different versions of his pained moan. He theatricalizes everything.
    All his life experiences are filtered through film and drama. When he sprains his back his girlfriend Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) calls him Richard III (a familiar Pacino film role) but he calls himself Igor (Dr Frankenstein’s assistant). The switch summarizes his increasing servility to Pegeen, who shifts from adulating girl fan to increasingly monstrous betrayer (leaving him on his opening night of King Lear). Simon can’t even call the lost Pegeen back, pleadingly, without slipping into an allusion to Brandon DeWilde’s Joey at the end of Shane. His roles in life blend indistinguishably into the roles of his drama. Lately he has even been slipping from the lines of one play into another, unsettling his colleagues. But then, all the world’s a stage and we are all but players, remember?
    Whole scenes are exposed to have been fantasy. He imagines talking to Pegeen at the fertility clinic. He imagines Pegeen’s bringing back a beautiful pickup for a threesome, that doesn’t materialize. His imagining of Pegeen’s mother (Dianne Wiest) telling him he’s the girl’s father prompts his killing himself at the end of Lear. Where the character dies of a broken heart the actor with a shattered memory and a mercurial sense of self commits a kind of hara kiri. He who lives by the shifting variety of assumed roles dies by one too. When the vet gives Simon a horse painkiller his brief reduction to stupor anticipates the dementia from which his personalized Lear climax saves him. Never has the valedictory spoken to Lear so movingly applied to the actor.
    The film’s ostensible focus on theatre and acting opens into the broader sense of human identity and the individual’s spectrum of self-presentation. Pegeen runs her own range of roles: childhood fan, college prof, an administrator’s lesbian lover, a trans-sexual’s ex-lover, her disappointed parents’ daughter. Even as Simon’s lover she moves through adulator, mistress, caretaker, exploiter and finally abandons him at his greatest moment of need. Pegeen rejects Prince because in his sex-change he spoiled the beautiful body he had as Priscilla. Talk about role-changes…. Simon hears Pegeen reject Prince because she doesn’t have sex with men! He’s emasculated by their affair.
    Indeed Simon finds his habitual solitude overrun with lunatics: the mental patient who hounds him to kill her husband, Pegeen’s ex who stalks Simon and who implicates him as accomplice, the trans-sexual who tries to make a role for himself in Pegeen’s new life. As all the world’s a stage Simon’s life teems with colourful supporting players, as extreme as the comedia del arte types. His lavish house — in which he only occupies the ground level and even there seems not to have unpacked yet after 14 years — is like a stage set, in fact, the stage set of his Lear, played in modern dress against a spare white abstract set.
    As the film is based on a Phillip Roth novel it’s a familiar examination of a famous male persona and his inner conflicts, especially in the sexually Absurd world. Here the kinky is normal, as when the mature housekeeper runs through the care of Pegeen’s sex tools, orderly arranged in a laundry hamper. And the normal — trying to get through life by playing all the roles we need to — is mad.
    Of course, with a heroic leap of the imagination this 72-year-old critic can relate to the 65-year-old hero’s increasing confusion and diminishing capabilities. In the scenes where his injuries — and painkillers — reduce him to a blithering crippled idiot he anticipates the climax of his first performance: “sans everything.” Having lost his craft, having lost his audience, Simon as Jaques tries to leap out of his role. He jumps off the stage, injuring himself but oddly creating a public appetite for watching him do a Spider Man Shakespeare again. In his fatal Lear he not only recovers his craft and his audience but manages to trump his earlier surprise. That would be anyone’s, not just an actor’s, triumphant exit. for more analyses see

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