“Early word at the Venice Film Festival had it that the new Al Pacino picture, The Humbling, lived up to its title,” begins the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “A film about a famous, declining actor suffering hallucinatory breakdowns both on-stage and off seemed like a risky proposition, given the very similar-sounding Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, had opened the Mostra to near-blanket rave reviews just two days earlier. And in the end, so it proved: The Humbling, which was directed by Barry Levinson (Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man) and based on a novel by Philip Roth, is such inept, shuffling nonsense that an apter title might have been The Bumbling.”
Variety‘s Scott Foundas grants that The Humbling “may be doomed to dwell” in the “deservedly large shadow” of Birdman. “But where Inarritu’s exuberant style piece calls to mind the likes of Fosse and Fellini, The Humbling feels closer to the intimate theater/film hybrid works of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (My Dinner With Andre, Vanya on 42nd Street) in its lo-fi aesthetics and gently playful sense of art imitating life imitating art. Fronted by a vibrant, deeply committed Al Pacino performance and very fine support from Greta Gerwig, this uneven but captivating film deserves to find its own audience.”
The Playlist‘s Jessica Kiang “can see why Al Pacino would be attracted to the material, though. Done right, it could have been a juicy, self-referential, late-career relaunch for a legendary actor who, like his character, has strayed dangerously close to self-parody in recent years, bringing generous helpings of ham to a series of paycheck gigs. But while we still hold out hope of such a return to form for Pacino…, The Humbling is not it.”
For the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw, “though it never quite finds its tonal register as comedy—or satire, or bittersweet anatomy of late-life crisis and May-to-December love—it is entertaining, and its star Al Pacino often finds some very funny, rangy comic riffs.” He plays “Simon Axler, a renowned theatrical lion who is now suffering from a mixture of stage-fright and existential fear (of the sort that reportedly poleaxed Daniel Day-Lewis and Nicol Williamson) and also a kind of very early-onset dementia…. [H]e bungles a pseudo-Hemingway suicide, chalks up 30 days in rehab and wearily retires from acting to his house in the country where he embarks on a miraculous affair with a younger woman, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig) who does a solid, if unexciting job with this thankless role. Pegeen is the daughter of a family friend; she has always had a crush on Simon and is willing to suspend her gay identity for this liaison; it brings him nothing but humiliation and discontent.”
“Al Pacino is in top Al Pacino mode,” declares Screen‘s Mark Adams and, at Indiewire, Kaleem Aftab agrees that “the entertainment value of The Humbling comes largely from Pacino’s performance.” Indeed, Pacino “runs riot here in the role of the self-absorbed Shakespearean performer,” writes Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter. “And his love story with a young lesbian woman who gives up women (‘a 16-year-long mistake’) to bed him is nothing short of preposterous. And yet, all this notwithstanding and after an extremely buggy first half, Buck Henry and Michal Zebede’s screenplay finally kicks in and an entertaining film emerges from the rubble.”
The Playlist has a clip (1’38”).
Updates, 8/31: “Having the 72-year-old Levinson directing a screen adaptation by the 83-yar-old Buck Henry of a novel that Roth published when he was 78 almost guarantees an old man’s meditation on dying as the final act in life’s tragicomedy,” notes Time‘s Richard Corliss.
Catherine Bray at HitFix: “It should go without saying that there’s nothing wrong with threesomes and dildos and so on—it’s all part of God’s rich tapestry. But when they’re combined with beautiful young lesbians who can be turned straight by suicidal old men, most viewers will be wary that we’re in the realms of fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with fantasy either, but if fantasy is all this film is trying to be, it should be far more enjoyable.”
“It’s a boldly unconventional film from Levinson,” writes the BBC’s Nicholas Barber. “But ultimately he takes its cloudy vagueness too far.”
Four out of five stars, though, from John Bleasdale at CineVue: “The Humbling is obviously and deliciously indulgent, but Pacino has earned it, as his agent (played by Charles Grodin) says: ‘He’s taken it to a whole new level.'”
Updates, 9/1: “In truth, it’s not that bad, and will likely find a significant audience,” writes Tom Christie at Thompson on Hollywood. “But it just never feels fully there, despite all the talent involved.”
“Pacino is massively sympathetic as Axler switches from being Pageen’s mentor-lover to her lapdog,” writes Time Out‘s Cath Clarke. “Gerwig too, is excellent, turning what is essentially a bitch role (Pageen rinses Axler for his money and mocks him for his inability to act) into a messed-up human being, a toxic, narcissistic mix of ruthless and needy. They’re both too good for this silly, embarrassing story.”
Updates, 9/2: “The Humbling is another Roth older man-younger woman story, and this one feels shockingly out-of-date, from its retro ideas about lesbians and trans people to the two-dimensional vampire that the talented Gerwig is being forced to play,” writes Alonso Duralde at TheWrap. “There are some laughs here and there—Simon, plagued by anxieties and back pain, is no ageless stud—but the movie on the whole feels shrill, sexist, and repetitive.”
Tammaso Tocci at the Film Stage: “The Humbling and Manglehorn are the first films in which Pacino truly digs into issues of old age and displays his body in a new light. These reflections are enough to make either work significant, yet not quite enough to fully serve and integrate into either film.”
Update, 9/5: Writing for Cinema Scope, Jose Teordoro finds that The Humbling “nosedives into the pit by playing everything as morbid farce when Roth took his hero’s sexual reawakening very seriously. I suppose Levinson and Henry wanted to avoid being pegged as rich old famous white guys engaging in pathetic fantasies of endlessly sustained male virility, but then why bother with this property to begin with? It’s Philip Roth, for God’s sake.”
Updates, 9/7: The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek: “Pacino is marvelous here—he writes in big, loud loops, as usual, and just when you want to suggest that maybe, just for a bit, he might try to use his Indoor Voice, he pulls himself back to reveal the gruff, subterranean grandeur that made him a great actor in the first place. Gerwig is the weak link here: She doesn’t have the aura of hauteur you need to play the womanly schemer—there’s nothing remotely mysterious about her. But Pacino makes us believe that there is.”
“Pacino overacting is always more fun than Pacino underacting,” grants the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “but he’s playing an idea instead of a person here, and the film on a whole plays like some laughless comedic spin on Synecdoche, New York, complete with some stage/life blurring and Dianne Wiest. Not even the normally unassailable Greta Gerwig, grossly miscast here as a young temptress, escapes unscathed.”
Update, 9/8: Big profile in this week’s New Yorker from John Lahr: “As an actor, Pacino has always been unafraid to do what he needs to in order to be in the moment; he trusts his instincts and explodes with whatever feelings come up. Performing, for him, is not so much a profession as a destiny.”
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