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The Humbling | Review

Or The Unexpected Convenience of Sexism: Levinson’s Perplexing but Deviously Funny Stab at Roth

Barry Levinson The Humbling PosterDecades passed between initial adaptations of novelist Philip Roth’s novels (1969’s Goodbye Columbus; 1972’s Portnoy’s Complaint) before filmmakers like Robert Benton and Isabel Coixet mounted their own renditions to varied reception in the past decade or so with The Human Stain (2003) and Elegy (2008), respectively. After a decently received found footage horror film with 2012’s The Bay, seasoned director Barry Levinson adapts The Humbling, which, like Roth’s novel itself, initially received some of the same unfavorable notices from Venice and Toronto Int. Film Fests. But Roth’s novels are exactly the kind of difficult narratives that used to make for a tradition of daring cinema that’s been eclipsed by safety and sanitization in an effort to decrease offense and increase mass satisfaction. That’s not to say that Levinson is entirely successful on all fronts with his attempt, but the film is often absurd, biting, and offbeat in ways that are surprising and often refreshing.

A once prominent stage actor, Simon Axler (Al Pacino) has lost his passion for the craft. In the middle of a performance once night, he flings himself to the ground, injuring himself. Afterwards, a Hemingway inspired suicide attempts finds him checking into a rehabilitation institute under the care of Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker). There, Axler discovers he has no real wish to kill himself, but feels that his acting career is over. He befriends a warped ex-socialite (Nina Arianda) who gloms onto the actor because she feels he has what it takes to exterminate her dastardly ex-husband. Upon leaving the institute, Axler comes in contact with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a young woman he had known as a child since he was friends with her parents. Though identifying herself as a lesbian, Pegeen admits to harboring a lusty crush on Axler, leading quickly to an involved relationship.

The most uncomfortable part of The Humbling is the problematic portrait of sexual orientation with its treatment of Greta Gerwig’s character, who aggravatingly fluctuates between identifying herself as lesbian or heterosexual, exacerbated by the fact that the man causing such frazzle is the grizzled Pacino. This representation plays dangerously with the ignorant belief that lesbians exist only because they haven’t found the right man, a viewpoint The Humbling does little to dissuade with Gerwig’s flip-flopping (a less klutzy example of this occurs in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright). But Roth is hardly known for warm, loving characterizations of women.

Further exploration of blurry orientations are compounded by a transsexual character, in the type of droll fashion that would seem fitting in a Woody Allen film, if only Allen were more comfortably brazen with LGBT politics. Though problematic, this should not be an automatic detraction from the film, for if we don’t expect humans to live stuck in a box of labels, we shouldn’t expect all our characters to adhere to them either, and so Gerwig’s confusing behavior is invigoratingly subversive. It’s demeaning to hear her character pronounce her life after coming out of the closet as a “16 year mistake.” But just because we may not agree with her statement or those who feel that way doesn’t mean this type of characterization is without merit.

Unfortunately, The Humbling arrives on the heels of Alejandro Gonzalez’s Inarritu’s superb Birdman, which explores similar themes as concerns an actor struggling to overcome insurmountable ennui in a bid for reinvention within the parameters of the theatrical realm. As the Shakespearean trained specialist Simon Axler, Pacino is a surprising and often unpredictable comedic force, taking a swan dive in the midst of an apathetic crowd during As You Like It, which recalls both Pacino’s own mounting of Wilde’s Salome, as well as his cell-phone rant in low-brow fare like Jack and Jill, where he plays a different kind of self-caricature gasping at untoward audience behavior. To be clear, it’s not the same kind of meta-context that Inarritu nails with Michael Keaton, but The Humbling isn’t without a certain chewy texture with Levinson’s adaptation.

There are several moments of unhinged comic brilliance, such as a dip into a veterinary clinic where a slurred Pacino battles the angry parents of his ingénue girlfriend, played with delectable aplomb by Dan Hedaya and the incomparable Dianne Wiest. Sequences like these only seem to point out the rest of the film’s uneven tendencies, however, and one wishes there had been more of an acerbic under bite running throughout the remainder of the film. As entertaining as a loopy Nina Arianda happens to be, her bits enticing the down and out actor to collate on a project involving killing her possibly pedophilic husband are much more broadly goofy, though as we begin to question the sanity of Axler’s perspective, Levinson nearly justifies the messy disjointedness.

If anything, the miserable people depicted within Roth’s indifferent worldview are all trying desperately to reinvent themselves, sometimes by aggressive force, plainly denying labels pertaining to their occupation, sexuality, gender roles, and social definitions of sanity. Many will find The Humbling off-putting, unbelievable, or perhaps disconcerting because it’s not afraid to be uncomfortable. But maybe those same detractors should realize that, like people, not everything should fit comfortably in a box.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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