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Al Pacino plays Simon Axler in The Humbling, an unusually charming dark comedy about an actor teetering on the edges of reality, fantasy and career.

Christie Mullen

3 out of 4 stars

Title
The Humbling
Written by
Buck Henry, Michal Zebede (adapted from a novel by Philip Roth)
Directed by
Barry Levinson
Starring
Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Dylan Baker, Charles Grodin, Kyra Sedgwick
Country
USA
Language
English

An actor suffers an anxiety daydream, locked out of the theatre in which he is momentarily supposed to perform. He can't make it to the stage – he needs entrance, and he will definitely need exit – and he's lost without his audience.

This is the beginning of The Humbling, an unusually charming dark comedy about an actor teetering on the edges of reality, fantasy and career. The subject of dementia is explored and mined, not made fun of.

The actor is Simon Axler, a sexagenarian once great but who has now lost his mojo and some of his mind.

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No, the actor is Al Pacino?

"Finally, I said, something I can relate to," Pacino said (joked?) about the role recently. "A movie I can make about myself!"

The Humbling is a film heroically lifted from the pages of the so-so Philip Roth novel of the same name. Screenwriters Buck Henry and Michal Zebede have added zip with the script – the supporting roles in particular are enriched to lend a Woody Allen-like quirk and colour.

But this is Pacino's movie. Good lord, it seems as if he's in 120 minutes of The Humbling's 110. He's a fading man in a snowstorm, befuddled but aware enough, suffering the indignity of no longer controlling his life's events.

As Simon applies his makeup back stage, he rehearses the lines from Shakespeare's As You Like It, questioning himself repeatedly: Were the words delivered honestly, was he committed to his instincts – was it real?

The blurring of certainty. Simon wrestles with it all film long, and so will the viewer.

Once on the boards, the aged thespian has no command and is failing miserably. He swan-dives off the stage into the unoccupied orchestra pit. Worst suicide attempt ever.

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Later, at his barely lived-in country house in Connecticut, he tries to shoot himself in the head in the Hemingway manner, but his arms are too short for the shotgun.

Simon checks himself in to a high-priced psychiatric facility, where he talks out his issues. His audience, no longer participating with him, has started to recede. "I lost something I've had my whole life," he laments. "What do I do?"

What do you do? You cultivate a great supporting cast, which is what director Barry Levinson does. Charles Grodin plays Simon's long-suffering agent with a chipperness that is refreshing. Dylan Baker is Simon's psychiatrist, and although the doctor and patient converse online, Baker doesn't Skype-in his performance. And then there's Tony-winner Nina Arianda as the delusional Sybil, who befriends Simon in the mental hospital and keeps up the relationship afterward by sending him letters, stalking him and trying to hire Simon to murder her husband. As one does.

Arianda delivers loopy with effervescence, and so a craziness that could be creepy is delightful on screen instead.

Simon's romantic counterpart is the off-centre Pegeen (played by a mischievous Greta Gerwig), the daughter of old acting friends who had a crush on Simon as a child and now is old enough as a thirtysomething to act upon it. Except that she's a lesbian, or maybe not. She is cagey as all get out, for certain.

All these characters make dynamite entrances, but The Humbling, a showcase for Pacino's brilliantly half-bewildered responses to the people who swirl around him, is about Simon's exit.

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He swears off acting, but that won't do. And so, even though he's thought to be something of a freak show because of his onstage breakdown, he comes back as King Lear. You think you know how it ends? You don't.

Pacino is having fun as the fading Simon, winking at us maybe. And while many a true word hath been spoken in jest, Pacino has his mojo and his audience back. For real.

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