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THE HUMBLING is a throwback to a time when attention spans were longer, characters were created out of complex and even contradictory behaviors, and the story was an extension of the characters, not a glib contrivance. Based on the 2008 novel of the same name by Philip Roth, it is a study of Simon Axler, an actor crumbling as he feels his craft drifting away leaving him in limbo between reality and delusion, comedy and tragedy, meaning and nothingness.
Al Pacino gives one of the defining performances of his career as Simon. From his opening monologue before going onstage, to the actor’s nightmares that follow in swift succession, he is on camera virtually every moment, and every moment is a revelation. After a breakdown on stage, and an iffy recovery at a posh clinic, Simon returns to the house he has owned for 14 years without every quite unpacking. It’s not the only unfinished business in his life. Into it strides Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), his goddaughter who brings him a welcome home basket, and the news that she has had a crush on him since she was eight (and he was 40). She makes a pass, he receives that, and the fact that she is a lesbian, with equal astonishment, but not reluctance.
The story externalizes Simon’s inner life, and a rich, scary, and confusing place it is when compared to the reality around him. It is a signature Roth move and superbly translated from novel to screenplay by co-screenwriter Buck Henry (CATCH-22, THE GRADUATE). The veneer of social conventions is at odds with the existential crisis underneath. The timeline is the landscape of the id, with Simon’s online sessions with his psychiatrist (Dylan Baker) punctuating the misadventures of a man coming to terms with the life he has hitherto pursued without question. The episodic quality underscores the disjointed quality of Simon’s life, and the inherent absurdity is rendered with a sharp and vicious humor, that finds the actor less confused as his ability to distinguish reality from fantasy slips away. And what is real becomes less impactful than the highs and lows of Simon’s imagination. A perfect WASP housewife embroils Simon in her plans for revenge when her upper crust life falls to pieces; his starchy New England housekeeper details the proper care and handling of Pegeen’s sex toys; Pegeen’s romantic past is made manifest in the form of spurned lovers, including a transsexual hoping to capitalize on Pegeen’s shifting orientation. We are never quite sure what is the product of Simon’s fevered imaginings and what is actually happening, and that delicious tension adds an element of suspense to a bitterly funny tragedy. This is humor that is as dry as it is vicious, disemboweling Simon metaphorically with each new insult, and making him both the author of his despair and its willing victim.
This being Philip Roth, the women of the piece are seen through Rothian eyes, as saviors and savages, though the stereotypes are clearly the product of Simon’s projections, and speak to his own failings at empathy and commitment. Particularly piquant is a VERTIGO-esque remaking of Pegeen that takes its own unique twist on the Hitchcock classic.
THE HUMBLING redefines a happy ending in a way that teases us right until the very last moment as hubris and humility combine into a denouement as inevitable as it is blatantly poetic.
Bonus feature! Click here to listen to my 2013 interview with Greta Gerwig for FRANCES HA.