The opening moments of “The Humbling” are a fever dream, an anxiety-ridden nightmare. As stage superstar Simon Axler (Al Pacino) prepares to perform “As You Like It” his mind wanders, and soon we see him locked out of the theatre, refused reentry by a series of ushers and stagehands.
In reality he’s safe in the womb of his dressing room, but unease and insecurity wins out and he imagines the worst; an actor barred from the theatre.
It’s a glimpse into the mind of a lion in winter, an actor whose abilities are diminished. His crisis crescendos when he tries to commit suicide on stage after fumbling lines in front of a sold out house.
“You get all the awards, the accolades, the special treatment and what do you do? You end up throwing yourself off the stage, trying to pull some Hemingwayesque suicide.”
His flip into the orchestra pit lands him in rehab where he befriends Sybil (Nina Arianda), a troubled woman who thinks Simon, because of some of the roles he played on film, might be the right man to kill her husband. Later, at home, things get even stranger when he begins an affair with his goddaughter Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a free spirited lesbian who has had a crush on Simon since she was a little girl.
His emotional recuperation is complicated by Sybil’s unexpected visits, Simon’s bad back and a quickly depleting bank account.
“Why don’t you get me a deal writing my memoirs?” he asks his agent (Charles Grodin). “Isn’t that what washed up actors do?”
Instead he gets another shot at the stage, a Broadway adaptation of “King Lear.”
What is never completely clear is how much of the story is a dream, the product of Simon’s mind playing tricks on him, and how much is real. It’s a provocative setup for the story, a sex farce about a older man and much younger woman, fuelled by the insecurities of a man falling apart professionally and personally, but it doesn’t always work.
Pacino goes all in as Axler. He’s both majestically Shakespearean and pathetically pathological but the movie’s uneven rhythms don’t do him any favors. He’s in almost every scene, but director Barry Levinson (working from a novel by Phillip Roth, adapted by Buck Henry) can’t make up its mind whether he is making a comedy, a psychological drama, romance or portrait of a crumbling man, and Pacino feels cut adrift from scene to scene.
It’s an entertaining performance in a diverting movie but as a statement on aging or insecurity or the folly of infatuation, it never sheds much light on what King Lear called, “this great stage of fools.”
Bill Murray, Al Pacino, Robert Downey and Dustin Hoffman highlight first weekend at Toronto film fest. The Reel Guys, Richard Crouse and Mark Breslin, give us their take on the first weekend of the festival.
Richard: Mark, no matter how prepared I think I am going into TIFF, the first weekend always bowls me over. Like I’ve been run over by a stretch limo running late for a red carpet. This year was no different. Things really kicked off on Friday with the celebration of all things Murray. Bill, that is. The great man himself was seen all over town and even did a Q&A before a screening of Ghostbusters, and appeared in the pouring rain at the gala for his new one, St Vincent. My favourite line of his? “If this is really my day, why do I have to work so hard?”
Mark: Wish I’d seen that, Richard. But I did see Al Pacino, the great Al Pacino, in the unanticipated Q&A after The Humbling. When asked why he was drawn to the material in the Philip Roth adaptation, he said that the character had a lot in common with him, as an actor on the way down and a bit of a has-been. It was an amazing moment of how one of the greatest actors in the world regards himself. Also, he said he acquired the rights to the book in 2009. Which means it took five years for Al Pacino, the great Al Pacino, to get a movie made. Yikes! I admit the material is complex, and not multiplex fare. But The Humbling also has an offbeat sense of humour and a killer script by Buck Henry.
RC: When I wasn’t at a screening, I spent the weekend interviewing people — notably, the stars of the opening night film, The Judge. Robert Downey Jr. was last year’s highest-paid movie star, and he’s also one of the most quotable. When he walked into the room he was carrying a little green box. “I have distilled socialism in this box,” he announced, “and am taking it back to America.” In a wide-ranging conversation, he talked about portraying realism on camera — “Realism is the death of cinema in many ways” — and plans for his next couple of movies. “I can tell you for sure that we are obsessively working on another Sherlock, and the Marvel universe seems to self-perpetuate.”
MB: What other star than Downey would dare to use the word socialism in an interview that could be picked up by Fox News? What a gloriously eccentric actor and human being.
RC: I also got to spend some time with Dustin Hoffman. Not only did I fix his watch — he couldn’t stop the alarm from going off every 10 minutes or so — but we talked about his film Boychoir, and why he started acting in the first place when his first love was music. “I wanted to be a musician but I wasn’t talented enough. I have small hands,” he said, which made it difficult to excel at piano. “There is no correlation between small hands and private parts,” he added, before saying, “I was told to take acting. Nobody flunks acting.” Later he said that it wasn’t such a bad choice because, for instance, “No one ever says, ‘I want to be a critic when I grow up.’”
The Toronto International Film Festival premieres some of the best movies across the globe and attracts some of the biggest names in Hollywood. This year is certainly no exception with expected appearances from Reese Witherspoon, Robert Downey Jr., Kristen Wiig, Bill Murray and more.
Each year we get the inside scoop on the hottest TIFF movie premieres from renowned Canadian critic Richard Crouse, an expert in what films to see…and what films to skip…