Just as Michael Keaton plays a famous actor who finds himself locked outside the theater in “Birdman,” Al Pacino plays a famous actor who finds himself locked outside the theater in “The Humbling.”
It’s not the only similarity between the two films, but whereas “Birdman” is an electric journey filmed with great style and filled with sharp performances, “The Humbling” is a jumbled collection of scenes in which fantasy and reality intertwine in a manner I found more maddening than intriguing.
Sporting a wild hairdo that makes him look like an aging metal rocker who just put his finger in a light socket, the great Pacino goes full ham sandwich with his portrayal of Simon Axler, a legendary actor near the final act of his career.
In the opening sequence, Simon recites Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” monologue in his dressing room and takes the stage and then a nosedive into the orchestra pit. As he’s being wheeled into the ER, Simon cries out in pain — and then asks the nurse if she believed his moan or if it was too over the top.
Ever the actor — even though Simon claims he’s never taking the stage again.
At the urging of his longtime agent (an underused Charles Grodin), Simon enters a rehab facility so he can heal physically and spiritually. (He also does Skype therapy sessions with Dylan Baker’s Dr. Farr, who is not physically close but is … well. You know.)
In one of the many “Wait, what?!” moments in “The Humbling,” Simon meets a deeply troubled woman (Nina Arianda) at the rehab facility who tells a horrific story about her family and then pleads with Simon to kill her husband, because, you know, he’s done that in the movies.
Once Simon’s back at his spacious house tucked away on acres of woodland, he’s alone with his suicidal thoughts. He’s even got a shotgun handy, in case he wants to go out Hemingway style.
And then various characters start showing up at Simon’s door, most of them uninvited.
Greta Gerwig, a force of energy as an actress, is unfortunately miscast here as Pegeen, who I think is supposed to be some sort of magical temptress but comes across as borderline crazy and often irritating. Pegden is Simon’s goddaughter and she is a lesbian, but she seduces Simon anyway. Kyra Sedgwick is Pegeen’s ex, who begins stalking Simon with phone calls in which every single word sounds overwritten, and Billy Porter plays another ex of Pegeen’s, a transsexual who wants Pegeen back.
Simon seems out of it. At times his therapist questions whether these people visiting Simon are real, or figments of his imagination. On numerous occasions, a terrible thing happens — but then Simon awakes with a jolt, though it’s not clear if was sleeping or hallucinating. After two or three times of being yanked around like that, it’s hard to stay invested in the story when you’re wondering if what you’re watching is “real” or another fantasy/nightmare.
“The Humbling” is an adaptation of one of the lesser novels in recent years by the brilliant Philip Roth. The director is Barry Levinson, who from 1982 to 1997 had one of the best runs of any living director (“Diner,” “The Natural,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man,” “Avalon,” “Wag the Dog”). Levinson makes some odd choices here, even with something as simple as the ringtone on Simon’s phone. There are some moments of inspired black comedy, as when Simon’s “friend” from rehab shows up on his property and says, as they’re standing in the middle of the remote woods, that she’d like to go someplace private and quiet so they can talk.
Pacino is all over the place playing a man who looks too exhausted to sit up straight, let alone move about. Madcap characters keep entering and exiting Simon’s life, yelling at him and kissing him and berating him and making strange requests of him, and he just grows ever more befuddled.
We know the feeling.