The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Humbling

How's this for bad timing? The Humbling is about a troubled stage actor who experiences occasional difficulty distinguishing reality from fantasy. It contains a scene in which this actor gets locked out of the theater on show night, then has to run around the side of the building and through the front door in an effort to get onstage in time. Sound familiar? If it does, then you've seen Birdman. You've also seen the better of the two films. Although The Humbling eventually goes down its own path, it's hard not to see some thematic similarities between the two. But even if Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's movie did not exist, this one would still be an unsatisfying mishmash of half-baked ideas, clumsily executed.

Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, the actor in crisis. He's been acting for so long that his mind has fundamentally changed. He doesn't always seem to be sure what's real life and what's a performance, and when people talk to him, he's thinking more about how they are “playing their role” than the actual content of their words. His mental confusion causes him to seriously mess up onstage. Simon then has a breakdown and, after a short hospitalization, retreats to his home in Connecticut. There, he reconnects with his now-grown lesbian goddaughter Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), and they begin an affair. Simon slowly tries to correct his mental state, although that process is complicated by Sybil (Nina Arianda), a woman he met in the hospital who keeps begging him to murder her husband.

The Humbling has a very weird storytelling rhythm. Scenes where something happens are sometimes intercut with Simon telling his therapist about them (via Skype, no less). Other times, the film rambles from one thing to another in a disjointed manner, presumably intended to simulate the mental fog Simon is living under. You're not always sure if what you're seeing is real or some figment of his imagination. That borderline surreal approach can be – and has been - done effectively in other movies. It doesn't work here, though, because director Barry Levinson doesn't seem to have a clear-enough idea of why he's doing it or what would make it effective. Consequently, The Humbling feels more haphazardly assembled than lovingly crafted.

Adapted from Philip Roth's novel by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, the movie also doesn't figure out what its real focus is going to be. Too much time is spent on the subplot with Sybil, which detracts from the complete development of the Simon/Pegeen relationship that is ostensibly so crucial. As such, Pegeen comes across as an arthouse version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl stereotype, i.e. the erotic young woman who exists solely to inspire Simon to get his act together. The union between them is not especially convincing. Much of the other material should have receded into the background so that interactions between them could be emphasized more.

On the plus side, The Humbling excels when it comes to acting. Pacino gives one of his best performances in years, in part because he plays Simon with subtlety. There's none of the Hoo-ah! overacting that has become Pacino's stock in trade ever since Scent of a Woman. He's really good here, expertly conveying Simon's crisis of conscience. Greta Gerwig is solid too, although, again, her character is not as fully fleshed-out as she might have been. The supporting cast, including Arianda, Charles Grodin (as Simon's agent), and Dylan Baker (as his therapist) shine, as well. Kyra Sedgwick, Dianne Wiest, and Dan Hedaya also pop up in cameos.

The actors, strong as they are, can't save an unfocused, awkwardly assembled plot. The Humbling is clearly going after something interesting – the idea that an actor could spend so many years in fiction that he loses his connection with reality. Sadly, the film fails to explore that concept to its fullest, richest extent.

Plus, you know, Birdman.

( out of four)

The Humbling is rated R for sexual material, language and brief violence. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.

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