Lately, it’s become a Hollywood staple for a bunch of old guys to get together and make movie about aging to acknowledge that career-halting trait that they all share. Most of these movies are disposable efforts like The Expendables or Last Vegas that are more embarrassing than invigorating. Thankfully, three more guys just got together to do it again and delivered something truly inspired and special. It helps that two of them are behind-the-camera talent in Barry Levinson (Diner) and screenwriter Buck Henry (The Graduate), and then the movie hits an even higher level thanks to their onscreen muse being Al Pacino. Together the trio have created The Humbling, a dark comedy about an aging artist that is a genuine return to form rather than a retirement plan publicity stunt. Hit the jump for all the juicy details explaining why.
Pacino stars as an Al Pacino-style legendary thespian at the edge of his rope. He opens the film at rock bottom, stumbling his way through a Shakespearian speech that he used to toss off with ease before falling straight off the stage as an accidental dramatic crescendo. His manager (Charles Grodin, finally!) suggests a trip to a mental institution might be in order. So Pacino accepts the invite, cleans himself up, and meets a woman (Nina Arianda) who is convinced he is the man to kill her husband based on his filmography. Upon returning home, Pacino is greeted by the daughter of some long lost friends (Greta Gerwig), who admits she’d longed for him since pre-pubescence and initiates a affair within moments of reuniting. Clearly that helps boost Pacino’s confidence, so he starts chatting with his agent about a return to the stage in that greatest of career capping roles, King Lear. Throughout it all, Pacino describes and analyzes these recent life events with his therapist (Dylan Barker) and the more he speaks, the clearer it becomes that he is a deeply unreliable narrator slipping into dementia, so everything we’ve seen is of suspect reality.
Levinson and Henry toy with the nature of the film’s fragile reality with mischievous glee and admirably never give the game away. Aside from a few very obvious fantasies, everything could be real and everything could be false. It almost doesn’t matter. The game is the fun. Beyond that, they’ve possibly given Pacino the greatest role that he’ll receive in the autumn of his career. It’s a Pacino role that lets the actor do everything he’s known for. Playing a ham actor, he gets plenty of opportunities to trot out is “Ragin’ Al” persona, yet always within the context of a performance. When he’s playing the protagonist, it’s a far more subtle, nuanced, and even pathetic side of Pacino than we’re used to seeing. He comes across as a genuine small and lonely loser, yet within a film that doesn’t limit him to that. Like funny Al? Just wait until you see him field unwanted murder requests from Arianda or play a scene on horse tranquilizers. Levinson and Henry clearly designed the film to take advantage of the legend’s entire bag of tricks, even giving him the chance to play King Lear by the end. It’s a magnificent turn from Pacino, justifying his beloved acting explosions and showing off a quiet side that he hasn’t revealed in far too long.
Beyond that, Levinson/Henry serve up prime movie real estate to the long lost and much missed talents of Chares Grodin and Dianne Wiest who are predictably wonderful, as is Greta Gerwig who plays the many shades of a possibly imagined character with such naturalism that he role never feels like a writing trick. Levinson seems enlivened by the material, delivering one of his most visually spontaneous and lively films without ever getting in the way of big Al. What it all ads up to will be the most controversial aspect of the movie and indeed its got its share of false paths, dead ends, and unanswerable questions. Yet, as a portrait of the dignified tragedy of old age, the film so bitterly funny and on point that any inconsistencies are easily ignored. The Humbling is a wonderfully bizarre, twisted, and hilarious victory lap by three old guys who easily prove that they’ve still got it. Their collaboration would be a worthy retirement note for all involved, even if they are clearly too talented and driven to stop now.