Release Date(s)2014 (March 17, 2015)
- Film/Program Grade: C
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D
“All the world’s a stage...,” intones an actor sitting in front of a mirror rehearsing various readings of the famous monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It. He is soon seen onstage performing a new play and sees the audience’s attention waning. Looking at a loss, the actor throws himself into the empty orchestra pit. Thus begins The Humbling, directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man) and written by Buck Henry (The Graduate, Get Smart) and Michal Zebede (Devious Maids), based on the 2009 novel by Philip Roth. The little-seen 2014 film, which disappeared in the shadow of the Academy Award-winning Birdman, has recently arrived on Blu-ray.
The aforementioned stage actor is Simon Axler, played by no less an eminence than Al Pacino. The aging thespian has lost his ability or desire to act and is in a deep state of depression. After being released from the hospital, he attempts suicide once more. Finally convinced he has a problem, Simon enters a rehab/psychiatric facility to recover. While there, he meets Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker, fresh from television’s The Good Wife) and Sybil (Nina Arianda, a Tony Award winner for Broadway’s Venus in Fur), a fellow patient who wants to kill her husband.
After he returns from rehab, someone comes to visit him at home: Pegeen (Greta Gerwig). She is the daughter of two old friends of Simon and has just gotten a job teaching at the nearby college. Despite being a lesbian, she has been attracted to Simon since she was a child and the two soon begin a love affair.
As the relationship continues, the couple is met with disapproval and disbelief concerning the large age difference from many people including Pegeen’s past lovers and her parents (Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest). Simon continues to suffer humiliations as things progress between he and Pegeen and the walls between fantasy and reality begin to break down. Everything comes to a climax as Simon attempts to return to the stage and a plan a future with Pegeen.
The similarities between The Humbling and last year’s winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Birdman are rather striking. Both were filmed quickly (although Birdman was filmed even more rapidly than The Humbling) and both portray aging stage actors who have a hard time distinguishing between fiction and reality. Both films even feature a sequence in which the main character is locked out of the theatre for a performance. Unfortunately, The Humbling lacks the visual flair and frenetic pace of Birdman. Director Levinson instead highlights Simon’s isolation by having some protracted sequences of his dialogue in long or medium shots. While this does prove effective at times, it also keeps things at a bit of a distance for the viewer.
Levinson’s usual sure hand isn’t always in evidence here, either. Simon’s hallucinations are handled in different ways throughout the film, but that lack of uniformity leads one to question certain occurrences in the film. Did Sybil really come to him multiple times to convince him to murder her husband? Was he really talking to Dr. Farr at various points? The reasons for these dreams or even Simon’s loss of acting ability is also never fully explored by Levinson or the screenwriters.
In addition, even though the film is told from Simon’s point of view, we never really see what Pegeen gets out the relationship with Simon. The obvious go-to answer is money, but Pegeen seems to not particularly enjoy the clothes that Simon buys for her to make her more feminine. She doesn’t seem to be rebelling against her parents in any specific way. In fact, for most of the film, she doesn’t even seem to like Simon all that much and does little to hide her interest in other women. Gerwig is fine in the role, but she’s unable to fully illuminate Pegeen.
That is not to say there is nothing worthwhile in the film. The supporting cast of stage and screen veterans, including Kyra Sedgwick, Billy Porter, Charles Grodin and Mary Louise Wilson, are all uniformly (and expectedly) strong. The film’s main draw, however, is Pacino. His portrayal of Simon contains many layers, many of them nuanced. The performance is largely free of the over-the-top trademarks which have crept into some of his other recent roles. You can see how Simon struggles with the mounting humiliations in his life but wants desperately to hang on to Pegeen. Pacino also bring out the weariness and continued rationalizations in the character. It’s to his credit that The Humbling, however flawed, plays as well and as compellingly as it does.
Millennium’s Blu-ray technical presentation is decent, but certainly not spectacular. The 1080p picture is perfectly acceptable and there are no defects to speak of, but this will not make any reference lists. The same can be said for the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack. The audio presentation is fine but unexceptional. Subtitles in English SDH and Spanish are included.
The extras are, unfortunately, a disappointment. All that is included is a 1080p trailer for The Humbling itself and four 480i trailers for other films. There is a brief making-of featurette that talks about the original novel and Barry Levinson’s directorial style. However, with a running time of less than four minutes, there is barely any time for it to make an impression and it seems hardly worth the bother.
The Humbling presents a number of decent ideas swirling around but they never coalesce into a powerful or provocative whole. If not for Al Pacino’s performance at the center of the film, there would be little to recommend and someone wanting to see a story in this vein would be better suited to watch Birdman instead. The Blu-ray itself also contains little to get excited about. But for fans of Pacino, one of America’s most justly hailed actors, The Humbling might be worth your time.
- Joe Marchese