The careers of director Barry Levinson’s and his star, Al Pacino, have reached what is hopefully the end of a long decline. Pacino, so beloved and respected, hasn’t really given a great non-Shakespeare performance since Michael Mann’s Heat. Levinson, the Oscar-nominated director of Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam, and Diner hasn’t done anything even close to good since Wag The Dog in 1997 (and even that is stretching the meaning of “good”). So expectations going into The Humbling were low, to say the least. Those same expectations were shattered, with Pacino giving a performance that reminds you how he garnered all that acclaim in the first place.
The parallels between the career of the star and Simon Axler, his actor character, are obvious to all. Comparisons to 2015 Oscar winner Birdman are obvious, but true. Respected actor playing an actor suffering from mental issues. Pacino plays a much different man than Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, though. Simon Axler is suffering through the early stages of dementia, unable to seperate scenes from reality. He takes a tumble during a production and spends a month in a mental institution.
Things get interesting when he gets back home. The daughter of an old friend (played by Greta Gerwig) comes by and starts hanging out with him some nights and weekends. This relationship is a cliché, of course, and is noted as such in Buck Henry’s screenplay. Visitors keep showing up at Axler’s house unexpectedly, and his mental state is tested again an again.
Pacino walks a tightrope between comedic and pathetic. When his agent offers him $150,000 to appear in an ad for a hair restoration product, vanity forces him to reject it immediately. He’s more feeble than ever, so a lot of acting is done with facial expressions and he gets more out of an eye roll than most actors can produce from a full breakdown.
Levinson takes some chances with the camerawork here, and I think they pay off well. When Pacino is talking, the lens will often drift to some random point, focusing on a shoe or something off in the distance. It’s not something you see often in studio films, and I appreciate his going for it instead of just pointing the camera and yelling action.
It’s certainly not a perfect movie, but it is entertaining. Much more so than the trailer would have you believe. If you love Pacino this is a must-see. It’ll help you forgive him for Stand Up Guys.