Two days after the Venice Film Festival opened with Alejandro Gonzáles Inárritu’s Birdman, along comes an uncannily similar comedy drama about a Broadway actor who’s having trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. I don’t want to give anything away, but two pivotal sequences are almost identical in both films. The Humbling is a much slower, more muffled affair, however. Directed by Barry Levinson, and adapted from a recent Philip Roth novel, it stars Al Pacino as its befuddled actor, a Broadway veteran named Simon Axler. Now in his late 60s, he’s started to forget his lines and to sink into disturbing daydreams. He finishes a particularly dispiriting performance of As You Like It by diving headfirst off the stage. A month in psychiatric care follows, and then Axler retires to his house in a wood in Connecticut, where he spends his days shambling around the big, empty rooms, not quite killing himself, but not quite sure what else to do.
His isolation is curtailed by a visit from Pegeen (the excellent Greta Gerwig), a local drama teacher, and the grown-up daughter of two of his oldest friends. Shortly after announcing that she is a lesbian, Pegeen pounces on Axler and declares that she has fantasised about him since she was a young girl – never mind an age gap, which is a decade wider in the film than it is in the book. Axler jumps into a relationship with her... or so it seems. Drifting woozily between hallucinations and the real world, Axler is never quite sure what is going on, and neither are we. Does Pegeen really care about Axler? Does she even exist? The Humbling is too enigmatic to tell us one way or the other.
That’s not to say that nothing concrete happens in the film. One uninvited guest after another marches onto Axler’s property to make life difficult for him, including a woman (Nina Arianda) who demands that he murder her husband. There are also some treasurable bursts of sharp comedy: the argument between Pegeen’s parents and a sedated Axler is worth the price of a cinema ticket by itself. But there’s nothing to bind these various sequences together except Pacino’s narration, as Axler talks over his state of mind with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker) on Skype. The film is so fragmentary and dreamlike that you might think its screenwriters (one of whom is the 83-year-old Buck Henry) had only hazy memories of Roth’s novel, and were throwing in scenes from it whenever they happened to remember them.
Thanks to its reflective mood and autumnal atmosphere, The Humbling qualifies as a touching meditation on old age, and it’s a thrill to see Pacino quoting Shakespeare and pondering his craft rather than topping up his pension fund in another facile cop movie. Unlike some film stars, he has no qualms about presenting himself as wrinkled and decrepit, and yet his wolfish charisma and playful twinkle explain why Pegeen would be drawn to Axler. But the lack of any progression in the plot or the characters may well leave viewers scratching their heads. Axler tells his psychiatrist that Pegeen has changed his life, and that he would do anything to please her. But he appears to be weighed down by the same weariness throughout the film, as if Pacino were dragging along an invisible ball and chain behind him. Pegeen, meanwhile, remains a mystery. Only ever seen from Axler’s perspective, she is either a vampiric nag or a life-enhancing free spirit, but she isn’t quite a human being.
It’s a boldly unconventional film from Levinson, the director of such mainstream hits as Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam. But ultimately he takes its cloudy vagueness too far. The Humbling could also be called The Bewildering.