Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Humbling: Don’t Call it a Comeback

With a name like Pegeen Mike Stapleford, it is not surprising this grown daughter might still want to get back at her parents. Taking up with a friend of the family in his late sixties making headlines for erratic behavior ought to do the trick—that is, if the lesbian Stapleford really has started a serious relationship with Simon Axler. He certainly thinks they have, but his perception of reality is not exactly super reliable. There will be plenty of angst regardless in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Humbling (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

When Axler gets the sense the audience is not paying sufficient attention to his production of As You Like It, he does the only sensible an actor might do in such a situation, nose-diving into the orchestra seats. It sort of works, in so far as he becomes the leading topic of theater gossip. After a period of mental observation, including some awkward group therapy, Axler returns to his Connecticut home to ponder his comeback options: a hair restoration commercial or King Lear on Broadway. Seriously, it has to be either or?

Much to his surprise, Pegeen Stapleford interrupts his solitary recuperation, announcing her longstanding attraction to the slightly distressed thespian, despite her professed lesbian history. Suddenly, she is spending more and more time with the increasingly dependent Axler, serving as nurse maid, surrogate daughter, reclusion facilitator, and lover—or so Axler believes. Clearly, he is prone to flights of fancy, some of which both he and the audience recognize are not really reality, whereas others are not so easy to determine.

It definitely seems like there is a thin line between method acting and insanity in Humbling. Even though it is based on Roth’s novel, it is perilously easy to conflate Al Pacino with Axler. They seem to have all the same excesses, yet Levinson gets him to dial down the hoo-ah shtick.

Frankly, were it not for this film, Humbling would probably only be remembered as the book that guaranteed Roth never won the Nobel Prize. However, screenwriters Buck Henry, Michal Zebede, and Levinson (not formerly credited for screenwriting due to a dubious WGA arbitration) make the story of dirty old man wish fulfillment more of a hallucinatory meditation on what it costs to stay faithful to one’s craft.

All the is-it-or-isn’t game-playing can get tiresome, but it is worth wading through to see Pacino’s triumphant return to form. Arguably, he has been better than reported in middling flops like Son of No One, but this a big, full-bodied, surprisingly vulnerable, and presumably self-revealing performance. He has okay chemistry with Greta Gerwig’s Stapleford, who is a bit of cold fish (but that is a rather welcomed change from her typical quirky indie princesses). Yet, true to form, Charles Grodin, the master of more-is-less manages to steal all his scenes as Axler’s agent.

Without question, the best sequences in Humbling happen either on-stage or backstage as Axler prepares to make his entrances. Levinson and cinematographer Adam Jandrup convey a sense of the theater as a darkly magical and dangerous place, altogether fitting for an actor like Axler, who is so committed, he maybe should be. Levinson’s hand might have rested a bit heavier on the rudder, but he keeps the subjective bedlam from spinning too far out of control. It is just worth seeing if you would like to watch Pacino pull one out of the vault. Recommended accordingly, The Humbling opens this Friday (1/23) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.