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.”