a name like Pegeen Mike Stapleford, it is not surprising this grown daughter
might still want to get back at her parents. Taking up with a friend of the family
in his late sixties making headlines for erratic behavior ought to do the trick—that
is, if the lesbian Stapleford really has started a serious relationship with
Simon Axler. He certainly thinks they have, but his perception of reality is
not exactly super reliable. There will be plenty of angst regardless in Barry
Levinson’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The
which opens this Friday in New York.
Axler gets the sense the audience is not paying sufficient attention to his
production of As You Like It, he does
the only sensible an actor might do in such a situation, nose-diving into the
orchestra seats. It sort of works, in so far as he becomes the leading topic of
theater gossip. After a period of mental observation, including some awkward
group therapy, Axler returns to his Connecticut home to ponder his comeback
options: a hair restoration commercial or King
Lear on Broadway. Seriously, it has to be either or?
to his surprise, Pegeen Stapleford interrupts his solitary recuperation,
announcing her longstanding attraction to the slightly distressed thespian,
despite her professed lesbian history. Suddenly, she is spending more and more
time with the increasingly dependent Axler, serving as nurse maid, surrogate
daughter, reclusion facilitator, and lover—or so Axler believes. Clearly, he is
prone to flights of fancy, some of which both he and the audience recognize are
not really reality, whereas others are not so easy to determine.
definitely seems like there is a thin line between method acting and insanity
in Humbling. Even though it is based
on Roth’s novel, it is perilously easy to conflate Al Pacino with Axler. They
seem to have all the same excesses, yet Levinson gets him to dial down the
were it not for this film, Humbling would
probably only be remembered as the book that guaranteed Roth never won the
Nobel Prize. However, screenwriters Buck Henry, Michal Zebede, and Levinson
(not formerly credited for screenwriting due to a dubious WGA arbitration) make
the story of dirty old man wish fulfillment more of a hallucinatory meditation
on what it costs to stay faithful to one’s craft.
the is-it-or-isn’t game-playing can get tiresome, but it is worth wading
through to see Pacino’s triumphant return to form. Arguably, he has been better
than reported in middling flops like Son of No One, but this a big, full-bodied, surprisingly vulnerable, and
presumably self-revealing performance. He has okay chemistry with Greta Gerwig’s
Stapleford, who is a bit of cold fish (but that is a rather welcomed change
from her typical quirky indie princesses). Yet, true to form, Charles Grodin,
the master of more-is-less manages to steal all his scenes as Axler’s agent.
Without question, the best sequences in Humbling happen either on-stage or
backstage as Axler prepares to make his entrances. Levinson and cinematographer
Adam Jandrup convey a sense of the theater as a darkly magical and dangerous
place, altogether fitting for an actor like Axler, who is so committed, he
maybe should be. Levinson’s hand might have rested a bit heavier on the rudder,
but he keeps the subjective bedlam from spinning too far out of control. It is
just worth seeing if you would like to watch Pacino pull one out of the vault.
Recommended accordingly, The Humbling opens
this Friday (1/23) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.
Labels: Al Pacino, Barry Levinson, Philip Roth