A few years ago, when diminishing page space became an issue at every print periodical in America, the Reader decided to quit listing suburban multiplexes because typically they showed only the same movies one could see in town. In the past year, however, more and more indie films have been opening in the distant suburbs but never in Chicago; sometimes these theatrical engagements are just loss leaders, meant to anchor publicity campaigns for the more lucrative business of video on demand. We used to ignore these movies, figuring they probably sucked anyway, but last fall we began to notice that more of them were decent (or at least notable) releases with big-name casts: Are You Here, the big-screen debut of Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, starring Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Poehler, or Life of Crime, an enjoyable Elmore Leonard adaptation with Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def, John Hawkes, Tim Robbins, and Isla Fisher. In a just world these movies would have opened inside the city limits, but the big chains would rather just hand another screen to a proven moneymaker such as Interstellar.
The latest effort to be so humbled is The Humbling, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s slim 2009 novel about a classical stage actor whose talent has suddenly deserted him. If the movie ever had a chance of wide release, it probably evaporated last August, when Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) made its world premiere at the Venice film festival. One of the more memorable scenes in Birdman shows Michael Keaton, as a washed-up movie star hoping for a comeback on Broadway, getting locked out of the theater as his stage entrance approaches and having to run around from the back alley into the lobby clad in nothing but his tighty-whities. Three days later The Humbling premiered at the same festival, with a dream sequence near the beginning in which Al Pacino, as the creatively blocked actor, gets locked out of the theater as his stage entrance approaches and has to run around to the lobby, where the ushers fail to recognize him. Birdman is a front-runner for the Oscar this year; The Humbling opens Friday at South Barrington 30.
This ignominious fate seems appropriate for a movie that began as the lament of an aging white male pushed to the cultural margins. Simon Axler, Roth tells us, enjoyed a reputation as “the last of the best of the classical American stage actors” until he broke down during a Kennedy Center engagement playing Prospero and Macbeth. Dumped by his wife and rattling around his spacious home in upstate New York, the 65-year-old actor is visited and then seduced by 40-year-old Pegeen Stapleford, whose parents are old friends of his and who nursed a crush on him when she was a little girl. Simon, however, is her first male lover in 16 years, and not long after she installs herself in his home, the women in her life come looking for her: Louise, dean of a nearby women’s college, whom Pegeen slept with in order to land a teaching position, and Priscilla, who destroyed her long-term relationship with Pegeen by embarking on sex reassignment surgery. In addition to these unwanted visitors, Simon is being stalked by Sybil, a deranged woman he met during his monthlong stay in a sanitarium and who now wants him to murder her husband for her.
As actors often do, Pacino bought the rights to The Humbling as a movie vehicle for himself, and though one of the credited screenwriters is a young woman, Michal Zebede, the other is 84-year-old Buck Henry (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait, To Die For), who one guesses was the dominant force in turning Roth’s dark, disconsolate story into a male menopause comedy. Director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy, Wag the Dog) favors Pacino’s droll reactions to the aggressive, even batty women, and at times the comedy veers into pure shtick: Simon has a prim, matronly housemaid who turns out to be an expert on sex toys, and there’s a scene in which, administered a muscle relaxant to alleviate back pain, he gives a mush-mouthed defense of his new love affair to Pegeen’s irate parents (Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya). Sybil, the homicidal stalker, is a rather chilling character in Roth’s novel, but as played onscreen by Nina Arianda, she’s a cheery suburban mom, keeping her sunny side up even as she solicits murder.
Given the male-geezer club at work here, you won’t be surprised to learn that Roth’s Pegeen, a middle-aged woman with a mannish haircut, has been transformed onscreen into long-locked 31-year-old Greta Gerwig. Pacino is 74, which extends the 25-year age difference of the novel to 43 years, and the ick factor is exacerbated by a sequence in which Pegeen decides to spice up her and Simon’s less-than-fiery sexual relationship with a threesome involving a cute young thing they’ve met in a restaurant bar (Li Jun Li). Of course, Simon winds up mainly a spectator, gaping in gratified awe at the two writhing women from behind a masquerade mask. Gerwig, an indie It Girl who’s worked for Joe Swanberg, Whit Stillman, and Noah Baumbach, struggles with a character that was dreamed up by old men, and her false, schizoid performance—enraptured with Simon at one moment, enraged by him the next—might be overlooked only because Levinson is playing all this for laughs.
This emphasis on Simon as a man of diminishing potency is unfortunate, because Roth’s more piercing subject—and the subject that must have attracted Pacino in the first place—is the diminishing potency of a professional artist. Simon was blessed with a great gift, yet he understands now that his gift was finite and he has exhausted it. “The ways he could once rivet attention on the stage!” writes Roth. “And now he dreaded every performance, and dreaded it all day long. . . . He would hear the cue coming closer and closer and know that he couldn’t do it. He waited for the freedom to begin and the moment to become real, he waited to forget who he was and to become the person doing it, but instead he was standing there, completely empty, doing the kind of acting you do when you don’t know what you are doing.” The Humbling is even more painful to read in retrospect, because it was written by a man who’d come to doubt his own gift; three years later, after publishing one more novel, Roth announced his retirement.
Despite the surface similiarities with Birdman, The Humbling is a distinctly different movie: the first is about an actor whose talent has never been properly recognized, whereas the second is about an actor whose talent, while amply recognized, has simply vanished. Commercial prospects for The Humbling probably weren’t helped, however, by the fact that—and here come the spoilers—it shares with the other movie not only the scene of its hero getting locked out of the theater but also its climax. Urged by Pegeen to get his career going again, Simon agrees to play King Lear on Broadway, but after she dumps him on opening night, he stabs himself onstage, erasing the line between theater and reality just as Michael Keaton’s character does in Birdman. I only hope that, when they give out the best actor award on Oscar night, they add Pacino to the split screen with the five nominees. I want to see just how good a performer he is should Keaton win.