Deep Focus: The Humbling
Barry Levinson’s The Humbling is frisky and buoyant, with laughs that bubble up unpredictably, often when you least expect them. It’s also improbably moving, especially considering how irreverent it is toward its source book—Philip Roth’s unfairly maligned 2009 novel—and its protagonist, Simon Axler (Al Pacino), a great American actor whose creative well has suddenly gone dry. Levinson’s triumph is to bring the grotesque and satiric humor of Roth’s early books to the somber insights of this late one. By letting in an antic air, Levinson expands the story and connects it to an intense, volatile world. This director creates vibrant moments with the tiniest characters, including the fantasy stagehand and usher who prevent Axler from entering a theater where he’s due onstage, and the (real) nurse at his asylum who promises to give him a pill that will definitely put him to sleep. Everyone the novel relegated to phone calls or secondhand conversation springs to immediate visual life, including the asylum’s top shrink, Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), who conducts follow-up sessions via Skype.
The most important figure next to Axler is Pegeen Mike Stapleford (Greta Gerwig) the thirtysomething lesbian daughter of actor friends, who shows up at his Connecticut country house determined to make good on a childhood crush. In riotous addition to her just-dumped lover (Kyra Sedgwick), who pops up in a nifty replay of the book’s sharpest scene, Pegeen’s outraged parents (Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest) and her first lover—a lesbian who alienated her by deciding she was a man, and now is a man who goes by the name Prince (Billy Porter)—become delicious face-to-face antagonists for Axler. He hopes that Pegeen will replenish him, heart, body, and soul. Instead she expands the demented human carnival that invades his pastoral, anonymous Connecticut estate. Axler’s mistake—a common one, especially for artists and entertainers—is to imagine that there is such a thing as a simpler life. Having lived solely for the stage, he has no talent for everyday existence, and no defense against his own or other people’s lunacy.
In Roth’s novel, Axler’s downfall is instant and complete, more like a monumental writer’s block than a performer’s gradual humbling before an audience. (That’s one reason the novel is a second-tier work in Roth’s marvelous oeuvre.) In Levinson’s movie, everything is more elastic and more rooted in theatrical experience. Roth’s Axler figuratively takes “a tumble” from his usual artistic heights, in the words of his agent, Jerry (Charles Grodin). Levinson and Pacino’s Axler literally nose-dives off a stage and crumples face-first on the orchestra pit floor. In the emergency room he is still trying to grasp his effect on an audience, even if it’s just the nurse who wheels him down the corridor. Does she believe his moans? Should he take them down a bit? Did she notice the fluttering gesture he made with his hand?
Pacino is perfectly cast as a legend who loses his sense of craft and his grip on emotions because he can no longer distinguish between onstage and offstage behavior. That rare big-screen giant who maintains a steady connection to the stage, the post-Seventies Pacino has often proved to be too much in movies (even in his Oscar-winning, over-the-top turn as the blind retired lieutenant colonel in Scent of a Woman). But in fallow periods he has confounded expectations with superb restrained performances, especially when working with smart, talented directors like Brian De Palma in Carlito’s Way (93), Michael Mann in The Insider (00), and lately, Barry Levinson.
Pacino and Levinson have been superb collaborators. In Levinson’s HBO movie You Don’t Know Jack, about right-to-die advocate Jack Kevorkian, Pacino created a multifaceted protagonist—a man whose stubborn integrity transcends his sometimes crude and overbearing manner. In The Humbling he lets audiences glimpse the imaginative power that’s the source of his bravura and his acting genius.
Apart from Brando in Last Tango in Paris (a performance that endures partly because of its oddball humor), few iconic actors have dared to be as self-revealing as Pacino is in this movie. I’m not talking about spilling primal autobiographical secrets. The Humbling is about an actor struggling to use his observations and intuition to make sense of his most important character—himself—and to discover whether he still has a normal range of feeling. It’s about the actor who plays that actor, too. When Axler tries to regain the human reactions he had before his acting reflexes devoured them, you feel as if Pacino is tuning his own instrument.
Seeking relief from his suicidal mindset in a private “treatment community” (after attempting self-destruction with a shotgun), Axler pauses in group therapy before continuing to ramble on about his craft. As Axler tries to gauge the interest of the group, Pacino summons a furtive, pleading expression that’s eloquent, touching, and funny. It’s a small tour de force, but where did Pacino get it? From perception, inspiration, or both? It’s a face I’ve seen on widowers who fear they’ve talked too much about late wives, but Pacino makes it work for a man who’s mourning his late art. As Simon Axler, Pacino gives an exploratory performance. But it’s also sharp and controlled, even when Axler zones out—something that happens with increasing frequency when he contemplates whether Gerwig’s playful, childish Pegeen, who teaches theater arts at a nearby women’s college, could be a dream come true.
The charged yet indefinite connection he forges with Pegeen—an inspiration and opportunist, simultaneously—makes more sense than it did in the book. Screenwriters Buck Henry, Michal Zebede, and Levinson (who did the final rewrite) remove the novel’s backstory about Simon’s failed marriage to a former Balanchine ballerina. This Axler could never be married. He’s not just lost his moorings—he never had any outside his art. Levinson and Pacino’s Axler can’t even pretend to be paternal or avuncular. He doesn’t know how. As a weary, good-humored man of the world, he lends a sympathetic ear to any problems Pegeen had with her parents over her lesbianism. So he’s startled just a bit later when she flings herself at him, and he succumbs.
In Roth’s novel, Axler’s breakdown kicks in after he performs Prospero and Macbeth in repertory at the Kennedy Center. The phrase that haunts him is Prospero’s statement that “our actors . . . were all spirits” and “are melted into air, into thin air.” In Levinson’s movie, Axler’s pre-breakdown role is Jaques in As You Like It. The speech that sends him spinning into the abyss is “All the world's a stage, / And all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.” It’s a much better umbrella for Axler’s tale, and also for Pegeen’s. She’s an academic gold-digger who slept with the dean to get her college job, an ardent lover to Axler who later declares that he “hasn’t fucked the lesbian out of her yet,” and a narcissist who nearly makes Axler late for his comeback in King Lear because she must purchase the perfect outfit for opening night.
In the opening scene, Pacino puts the masks of comedy and tragedy on top of each other—signaling the film’s seriocomic intent—and savors Jaques’ delineation of the “seven ages” of man that define the “many parts” a man plays “in his time.” Axler will epitomize them in the movie. He’s an “infant mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms” (Age One), a “schoolboy” at his mental institution (Age Two), a “lover, sighing like furnace” (Age Three). He’s a burlesque “soldier” brandishing his shotgun at Pegeen’s lesbian lover (Age Four) and a renegade “justice” full of “wise saws” (Age 5), vainly arguing to an asylum friend (Nina Arianda) that she should hire a professional, not him, to murder the husband who abused her daughter. Even before Pegeen takes home a casual lesbian pick-up, Axler becomes the commedia dell’ arte “pantaloon” (Age Six), a ridiculous, hunched old man who can’t comprehend that his wealth alone earns him attention, and when a veterinarian shoots him up with an animal tranquilizer to quiet his aching back, he uproariously enters “second childishness and mere oblivion” (Age Seven). This master of articulation loses the gift of intelligible speech, disarming Pegeen’s aghast dad (Hedaya) and delighting her hostile mom (Wiest).
All these actors—and Grodin, Baker, Porter, and the rest—act with inside-out originality. The way Levinson conducts “their exits and their entrances,” they interact like a jazz ensemble that can play equally well “hot” or “cool.” Gerwig matches her typical fluent intelligence with quicksilver emotions, so you understand why Axler can pin her down only in his daydreams. Grodin creates an indelible portrait of an agent as a fan whose love for his artist translates into a pathetic eagerness to please. (When Axler says he’d rather do a hair restoration commercial than King Lear on Broadway, Grodin’s Jerry responds: “That’s a good choice, too!”) Baker squeezes laughs from psychiatric skepticism; he provides a farcical catharsis by noticing how many remarkable figures in Axler’s life appear to be converging in rural Connecticut. Perhaps freshest of all is Arianda, as a woman so desperate for revenge on her monstrous, child-abusing husband that she becomes Axler’s stalker, convinced that he can be exactly what she needs: a contract killer. Arianda compels you to watch her with nervous anticipation; her fixed smile can be scary, amusing and affecting.
From Pacino on down, they do the thespian equivalent of bungee jumping. Levinson makes it look both natural and unpredictable—the signature of his work in multiple media and genres over his three-decade-plus career. The filmmaker started out 33 years ago with an autobiographical masterpiece—the hugely influential Diner—and pursued his Baltimore memories with Tin Men (87), Avalon (90), and Liberty Heights (99). He swiftly notched “official” classics like Good Morning, Vietnam (87) and Rain Man (88), then proved to be a master of many forms, from big-star art and entertainment like the glamorous, black-comic gangster picture Bugsy (91) and Bandits (01), the best road comedy since the Seventies, to lived-in, small-scale fables like An Everlasting Piece (00) and piercing, poignant documentaries like The Band That Wouldn’t Die (09), a tip-top entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. In Wag the Dog (97) he really did what other Oscar-winning directors usually only say they’ll do: he made a groundbreaking, superbly iconoclastic independent movie that also happened to be the first political satire since Dr. Strangelove to introduce a phrase into our political vocabulary.
Over the years, Levinson has developed an ever-swifter, ever-suppler style. Though it was largely misunderstood as an “inside Hollywood satire,” What Just Happened (08), starring Robert De Niro at his understated comic peak, remains one of the few crack adult comedies about the fractured way we live now, with a fluid, not frantic, mode of shooting and editing. You Don’t Know Jack (10) was audacious and formally inventive. The direct-cinema-like scenes in which Kevorkian interviews his prospective patients are as extraordinary as the death scenes: they’re triumphs of the director’s extreme tact and sensitivity, bearing witness to the bravery of these pain-stricken people as well as to the zealotry of Kevorkian. His “found footage” eco-horror film The Bay (12) was both a cautionary tale about pollution and a prescient illustration of the dangers and beauties of “new media” when it comes to reporting an untold story.
In The Humbling, filmed on a pittance in and around Levinson’s own Connecticut home, he’s like a one-man American New Wave. As Axler and Pegeen start playing house by laying out a serpentine path for his old model train (steadied by stacks of old Playbills), his fearless cinematographer, Adam Jandrup, shoots at shoe-level and knee-level, and his crafty editor, Aaron Yanes, zigs and zags to Marcela Zarvos’s infectious, unconventional score, which combines finger-snapping pop, ooo-ooo choruses, tribal beats, melancholy jazz, and Bolero. It all feels organic, including the train set—just the right toy to convey a fragile, peculiar man trying to get his life on track. Throughout the film, Levinson pulls off matter-of-fact leaps between realism and fantasy, reverie and dialogue, and juggles time frames like a rock-’n’-rolling Chronos.
Yet Levinson also knows when and how to be simple, so we can appreciate, for example, how Pacino and Mary Louise Wilson, as Axler’s housekeeper, develop an entire Abbott and Costello routine out of her attempt to understand Pegeen’s place in the home. A static, prolonged shot of the sedated Axler in the veterinarian’s waiting room, struggling to communicate with Pegeen’s parents as they sit under kitschy pictures of owners cuddling pets, becomes funnier the longer Levinson holds it. Hedaya’s ragged patience heightens the scene’s drollery as he waits between the dazed, incomprehensible Pacino and the shrieking Wiest, who turns mother-love into a lethal weapon. She says she knows how vulnerable her daughter is to Axler’s reputation and celebrity “because I’m her mother—that’s how I know, that’s how I know, that’s how I know!” Then she turns the rest of Axler’s life into a death sentence: “You’re getting older by the day. Sixty-five now, and soon you’ll be 66, and then 67, and so on—it never stops.” I’d happily listen to Wiest recite the multiplication table. All three actors brilliantly boil down a family feud into a single, blissfully hilarious setup.
At its core, The Humbling is a tragicomedy about an actor who feels empty when he separates from his roles, and a woman who’s so good at “acting out” that she hasn’t bothered to find a firm identity. You don’t have to be a performer to love it. You could be a Facebook user overtaken by your colorful persona. The deepest meaning of The Humbling is its insistence that authenticity—in life and in art—is a matter of life and death.