Humbling, The: Barry Levinson’s Adaptation of Philip Roth’s Novel Starring Al Pacino as Aging Actor

Starring Al Pacino, Barry Levinson’s The Humbling is a tale of an aging, once famous actor, who’s now too self-conscious, and too full of doubts and anxieties.

In the first scene, Simon Axler (Al Pacino), locked out of his theater, is seen walking through the streets of Times Square before reentering his dressing room through the lobby.

In a comparatively quiet and understated performance, Pacino subjects his on screen and off screen persona to self-examination.

Filmmakers are often attracted to Roth’s novels, though there have been few effective adaptations over the past half a century–The Human Stain, Elegey, Indignation are all recent examples of poor or middling efforts. 

This is the second collaboration of Levinson and Pacnio, who scored much better the first time around, in 2010’s HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack,” in which Pacino played the notorious Dr. Jack Kevorkian.

In this tale, written by vet Buck Henry and Michael Zebed, like in other Roth stories, the central protagonists are a couple—an older male and a younger female—from different background and classes, who try to find mutual ground.

Pageen, the younger women Simon Axler meets and befriends, played by the quickly rising actress Greta Gerwig, could be his daughter or granddaughter; Pageen is in fact the daughter of Simon’s friends. Though now mostly a lesbian (she also sleeps with men), Pageen admits to having had crush on Simon ever since she was a little girl.

We learn that Simon had a breakdown on stage during a performance of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Even as he’s being wheeled into the hospital for treatment, he wonders whether his suffering is creditable!

During a stay at a rehab center ,arranged by his agent (Charles Grodin), Simon depicts in detail his deep anxieties over having lost his acting talents.

The film’s second and weaker part centers on the bond between Simon and Pegeen, when he returns to his large and isolated Connecticut estate. A mature woman now, Pageen finally pulls courage to express her previous, latent attraction to Simon, though her character is so vague and contradictory that it’s hard to feel anything for her.

There are other women in Simon’s life, all underdeveloped characters.  Sybil (Nina Ariande) is a borderline psychotic socialite he had met at the hospital, who’s burdened with lethal schemes of her own.  Also stalking Simon is Pegeen’s spurned former girlfriend (Kyra Sedwick) a bitter, angry woman who warns him of Pageen’s destructive intents.

Pageen is also burdened by her disapproving parents (Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya).

The film’s only fresh character is a young black man, Prince, (Billy Porter). who used to be a young woman, Priscilla, before undergoing sex-change operation, though he is mostly mocked by Simon.

The candid observations, naked doubts, and questioning of the meaning of his existence provide the most interesting moments in a film that is rather rambling in purpose, and too fractured in text and tone for its own good.

The Humbling again proves how difficult it is to adapt Roth’s complex and subtle novels to the big screen.