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The Humbling ***1/2

by Andrew Hudak

Is it worth $10? Yes

Right from the opening of “The Humbling,” two things are made clear: 1) Al Pacino will give a nuanced, understated performance suitable to his indelible acting talent, and 2) the man he is portraying, Simon Axler, is a few cards short of a full deck. When we first see him, he is looking into a mirror, putting on makeup, reciting lines for the play he is about to perform…then repeating them again because he is having a hard time remembering them. Then he has a conversation with himself where it’s made clear that he is his own worst critic and may suffer from depression and self-loathing.

These traits are perhaps what leads him to collapse on stage during a soliloquy. For recovery, he is sent for psychiatric evaluation under the care of Dr. Farr, played by Dylan Baker. Baker is an amazingly talented actor who’s been in a lot and you’ll recognize him, but he really caught my eye in director Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” in 1998. Few performances on screen have been that raw, painfully emotional, brutally honest and heartfelt. Ever. I understand that the draw of working with Pacino, as well as director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) and writer Buck Henry (“The Graduate”) was what got him interested, but it’s a cipher role that entails little more than Farr asking Axler questions so Pacino can exorcise his demons. It’s a bit too easy for a master actor like Baker. He certainly didn’t take the role for the paycheck—that’s what the role as Dr. Connors in the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” films was for, but I digress...

While with Dr. Farr Axler also meets a woman named Sybil (Nina Arianda), who tells Axler a horrible story about catching her husband molesting their daughter. Later at dinner, she asks Axler to kill her husband, because she saw him do it in a movie. Axler does his best to explain that he was just playing a role, plus she shouldn’t go around asking people to kill her husband. As he very correctly tells her, it’s “socially awkward.”

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It’s moments like that one that really help “The Humbling” along. Axler is depressed and delusional and has a lot to struggle with. Henry could have left the screenplay dark, and Levinson could have omitted the little jokes, but they very wisely chose to include them. This is not broad or obvious comedy, but rather witty remarks, and they work to lighten the mood where needed.

Axler gets home and is settling in when the daughter of an old friend shows up. Her name is Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), and she’s a lesbian. Or, at least has been for the past 16 years. She confesses to Axler that she had a crush on him as a little girl. The crush comes back—and then some—as she abandons her lesbian life and shacks up with Axler. This of course is much to the chagrin of Pegeen’s former lovers, like Louise (Kyra Sedgwick), as well as Axler’s old friends, who are also Pegeen’s parents (Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest).

Turmoil is the last thing Axler needs in his life, but he gets plenty of it with Pegeen. In spite of their initial lust for one another, the reality that they are far too different people with far too different lifestyles comes crashing around them. This is especially hard for Axler, as he knows that Pegeen might be his last shot at love and a family, but he just can’t hold things together. Not all is his fault, as his dementia exacerbates the situation.

Indeed, if there is one flaw in the film it’s that it is sometimes hard to tell what is real and what isn’t. The prime example is with Sybil. I’m still not sure if she was for real, all made up, or a bit of both. There is no real closure with her, and there are a few details about her that leave who she is open to debate. Maybe that’s the point. Henry and Levinson want us to feel what it’s like to be inside the head of a man whose delusions are so persistent that he can’t tell fact from fiction. If that is the case, then well done--very well done.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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