Monday, January 26, 2015
"The Humbling": It's hard out here for an over-the-hill stage actor
“The Humbling”, directed by Barry Levinson and adapted from the 2009 novel by Philip Roth, with Al Pacino as the aging actor protagonist, ought to have been a major indie player in the Christmas season. But the film is a bit tedious and rather wastes its anamorphic wide screen space, so it seems most consumers are just seeing it on Instant Play.
There’s always an issue when writing about an “over the hill” anti-hero. Do you show his life from his viewpoint, or (perhaps more interesting, though not done here), through the eyes of younger adults (or even teens) around him? How do you bring in the backstories of the other characters? In real life, that’s usually complicated, and in the movie business that’s one reason we get “prequels”.
The novel, while short at 140 pages, is rather intricate, and in three parts. The 112 minutes of the film seem to gloss over the serious problems in some of the other characters’ lives, somewhat focusing too much on Simon Axler’s self-pity and vulnerability.
One interesting concept of the film, though, is its layering. Some of the thespian’s issues will be played out in his roles as he returns to the stage.
As the movie opens, Simon is quoting Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”, the passage about “all the world’s a stage”. Indeed, fiction and fact will mix for him. He seems to be banned from entering a theater, after a previous meltdown at the Kennedy Center. But somehow he gets another chance, and dives off the stage, and winds up in a psych ward. (That scene might make an accidental connection to “Birdman”, a much snazzier film (Nov. 5).
He spends a month in rehab, and meets a woman who describes a horror story of how she discovered her husband’s abusing her daughter. Simon courts legal trouble (as an accessory) by allowing discussions as to how she could hire a hit to get rid of her husband. By now, we’re in material that might belong in a Robert Altman movie, but not handled as well. In time, Simon is back home (is that Scarsdale? – suspect it was shot in Toronto) and in a relationship with a “former” lesbian Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), whose recent African-American lover is now transgender to male. Pegeen’s parents, at one point, tell Simon to “stay away” from their daughter. You hear that in soap operas, but you hope most seniors recognize where they are not welcome in time.
Simon will eventually return to the stage. Apparently the play is supposed to be Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. That was itself a film in 1962, and not on DVD, but I seem to recall a video of some of it in a lesson plan for an AP English class when I worked as a substitute teacher a few years back. Maybe this new film would show up as viewing in a college drama class. The climax of the film concerns what Simon may do to himself when acting the part in the play at the end. It sounds like he is quoting Shakespeare again. Actually, I recall a line where Simon says he wants to do "King Lear" (which we all read and took quizzes on in English as seniors in high school -- and I remember all the intra-family jealousies). Maybe that was the setting at the end.
The official site is here.(Millennium films). The film can be rented legally on YouTube for $6.99, same price on Amazon. A little cheaper than a theater ticket. Nice to have a big home screen.