The quality of the acting in today’s films, whatever the flaws in the films themselves, is at a high level. Kick that up a notch when you see Al Pacino dig into the role of an actor in crisis in The Humbling. In director Barry Levinson’s bracing film version of Philip Roth’s 2009 novel, Pacino plays Simon Axler, an aging star who can’t remember his lines, falls into the pit during a Broadway performance of As You Like It, enters rehab with thoughts of suicide, and on release returns to his Connecticut home to find what he thinks is love and a new life with Pageen (a sly, stellar Greta Gerwig), a much younger woman who happens to be a lesbian.
The Humbling is a dark dazzler shot through with mirth and delicious malice. But be warned. It is not Roth’s novel. Pacino and Levinson, who collaborated brilliantly on HBO’s Dr. Kevorkian saga, You Don’t Know Jack, are experimenting here. Shooting on the fly in Levinson’s own home, they’re putting comedy and tragedy on a collision course and waiting for the inevitable.
There are times when the film loses its balance and goes splat. That happens when creative talents are on the tightrope. The compensation is the exhilarating rush that comes when the elements connect. This is Pacino’s best film performance in years. He’s a daredevil going full throttle. In playing an actor who has lost the art of fooling himself, he reveals with mordant wit the terrors of diminished capacity. To watch him do it is a master class.