What happens to actors when they can no longer remember their lines or worse when they can no longer deliver them? Well this film might have your answer and was simply quite fun to watch while finding out.
Al Pacino plays fictional acclaimed stage actor “Simon Axler”. We first meet him backstage, warming up before going on stage, talking to the mirror, asking his reflection how good his recitation is. He has two masks, one representing comedy, the other tragedy, and these masks could very well be the metaphor for this film. We watch the tragedy of a man losing his talent and losing his mind, but at the same time there are lots of laughs to be had on the way. Axler gets lost backstage and finds himself outside boxed in an alleyway. When let back in, he isn’t recognized and is kicked out of the theatre and though I felt like I’d seen this scene before ala Michael Keaton in Birdman, it didn’t lose it’s luster here.
As the film moves along we discover that this is all in his head and this is where the fun parts of the film kick in as we are not always certain that what we see is occurring or whether it is a figment of Axler’s quite funny and oh~so~vivid imagination. After throwing himself off stage, Axler heads to rehab where he meets “Sybil” (Nina Arianda) who is hysterical in this role and probably my favourite character after Simon in film. She wants Axler to kill her husband, who she claims is sexually abusing her daughter and as she turns into one of the funniest stalkers ever, popping up at the most inopportune of places and times, you can’t help but wonder is she really batshit crazy or did any of what she says.. really happen. I’m guessing it’s the former.
Back home, Axler receives a visit from “Pegeen” (Greta Gerwig), the lesbian daughter of his old theatre friends “Asa” (Dan Hedaya) & his wife (Dianne Wiest). Pegeen has worshipped Simon since she was a little girl and her childhood obsession was with a successful actor, not this old man who can’t seem to pick up a bag without throwing his back out and she lets him know this in no uncertain terms, even though he is supporting her every whim to the point of bankrupting himself. Herein lies the question of the film…How long can Simon resist not only the lure of the stage despite its risk of further humiliation for him, but the fact that he needs to make money is also paramount here.
As the film leads towards Axler’s return to the Broadway stage, the situation around him becomes ever more chaotic and surreal, leaving us to wonder just how much of all this is really going on. But it doesn’t really matter because it is all real to him. Pacino is in every scene of the film and we see everything from his viewpoint, real or not real, this is his experience. For Simon Axler, life and performance have somehow become fused and there is no way for him to work out what the difference is any more.
As he has done so often in the past, Levinson has made an intelligent, funny and most human film. The cast, including Charles Grodin as Axler’s agent “Jerry”, and Kyra Sedgewick as “Louise Trenner” the jilted lover of Pegeen, are all a pleasure to watch. Pacino’s wonderfully fun performance never wavers and though of a similar age as his character, but so unlike him in real life as his legendary talent seems far from burning out.
After the screening we were treated to a Q & A with the man himself, the consummate storyteller both on and off screen, Al Pacino. The man is a just a treat to listen to explain not only this role & film, but stories about ‘Dog Day Afternoon’, another of my fav directors, Sidney Lumet whom he worked with many times, and so many others. As he spoke noting a few fun things about making the film making us all laugh: “It was about an actor, so I thought, ‘Gee, it’s possible I could make this into a film.’ Because at least it’s a little something that I know about — an actor on the way out,” “The world it’s in, it’s sort of my wheelhouse.” “It’s an advantage to know the world you’re making a movie about”
*Note: Oscar screening series took place on Wednesday, December 10th, 2014 at The Landmark (Westwood). The Humbling is in very limited release with a set release date of January 23rd, 2015.
(See grading scale)