The term “straight to video” used to be the kiss of death for any film; for a while, “straight-to-video-on-demand” became the twenty-first-century equivalent. Sometime in the last five years, though, streaming video content became a legitimate movie distribution platform, one ensuring that more obscure content – documentaries, indies, foreign films – reached wider audiences than ever before, albeit with less pomp and circumstance. So to say that “The Humbling” is a straight-to-video-on-demand movie isn’t exactly an insult.
It also isn’t exactly true, since it concurrently opened in a scattering of theaters across the country late last month. But the fact remains that, though this film boasts a pedigree so impeccable it’d make a blue blood weep – Oscar winner Al Pacino stars, Oscar winner Barry Levinson directs, and Oscar nominee Buck Henry co-writes this adaptation of Pulitzer (and National Book Award) winner Philip Roth’s 2009 eponymous novel – its lukewarm theatrical reception was almost a foregone conclusion. You might wonder: What’s the catch?
Like all of Philip Roth’s books, The Humbling is not ideal fodder for the big screen. The legendary author is doggedly un-politically correct by today’s standards, and his narrative style – a veritable cacophony of narrators, subplots, asides, and oddbot (and perennially emphatic) revelations – makes him more difficult to adapt than any modern author aside from David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon. In recent years, Roth’s work has focused on what we might uncharitably call the classic codger fantasy: An older man (typically a sexagenarian) wins the affections of a desirable, significantly younger woman. The subsequent adaptations of these books have been queasy. “The Human Stain” is woefully aptly titled; “Elegy” is an insufferable (if elegant) self-rationalization. “The Humbling” is by far the best of the lot, precisely because of what might be deemed its most glaring flaws.
Pacino plays Simon Axler, a celebrated actor who’s fallen down on his luck – literally. No longer confident of his acting chops, he purposefully takes a dive off a stage, and lands himself in a sanatorium, where his version of group therapy is to treat co-patients as an audience to whom he pontificates in the sonorous tones of a man with Lear in his future. Levinson defers to his subject, cradling in the crevices engraved upon Simon’s face; we seldom glimpse more than the backs of the heads of anyone else in the room. Soon enough, Simon is released to the country house he’s never fully inhabited, and he begins to date Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the lesbian daughter of an old fling (Dianne Wiest, yet another Oscar winner). Age aside, Pegeen is an ideal match for Simon; her grotesque self-involvement is the most compelling thing about her. But Simon’s old tricks are less appealing on an old dog, and he founders as he tries to keep up with this younger woman. As he fumbles with his fly, his otherwise-deadpan concubine thrills to other flames – including a black ex-girlfriend who’s now a handsome black man – and an impressive array of sex toys that she pointedly keeps for herself.
In recent years, Pacino’s performance style has become a parody of his younger self, his barks now reduced to hoarse bleats. Here, his self-aggrandizing shaggy-dogginess doesn’t just work; it is the work. As Simon dissembles, his no-doubt lifelong inability to recognize other people as separate from himself becomes pathological, and since Levinson rarely rears back enough to reveal that Simon’s talking to himself, we dissemble right along with him. It’s not just that we can’t distinguish between his desires and his terrors; it’s that we can’t distinguish between when he’s projecting them on others and when others are not even in the room.
Levinson is hardly an obvious candidate to craft such a complex meditation on narcissism. His best films are not celebrated for the depth of their observations so much as the irresistibility of their delivery. (We can just imagine the smart-alecky twentysomethings of “Diner” cackling over their cheese fries as Simon drools in a corner.) But in another vein, this winter of Simon’s discontent is a perfect project for all the “old masters” involved. They can have their cake and eat it too – or at least gum it – rolling their eyes at transgenderism, making racially suspect jokes, dickering with young girls, and roaring at the heavens about their dwindling potency while we’re made to understand through the guerilla Method-y filmmaking that their delusions of grandeur are, literally, “all in their head.” It’s pointless to take umbrage with Simon’s cultural biases, objectification of women, and Portnoy’s self-pity when his white, rich, male entitlement is now drowning him.
It’s a high-falutin’ “I Can’t Get No Respect,” and because of the undeniable talents of this crew, it works — in a rambling, darkly self-aware sort of way. How “The Humbling” doesn’t work is as twenty-first century theatrical fare, as it’s too impolitic to be celebrated in art-house theaters and too esoteric to be featured in today’s sequel-driven multiplexes. The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected: Yesterday’s toast of the town is today’s long tail.