Friday, April 3, 2015

Comeback: Al Pacino in The Humbling

Philip Roth’s 2009 novel The Humbling, one of his last before he gave up writing for good, didn’t get the attention it deserved, and Barry Levinson’s marvelous movie version effectively didn’t even get released. It played New York and Los Angeles briefly at the end of the year for awards consideration, then went straight to iTunes. The story concerns Simon Axler (Al Pacino, giving his finest film performance since the nineties), a sixty-seven-year-old actor who suddenly discovers he can no longer summon up his acting gift at will, and under the stress of that recognition collapses on stage of a heart attack. Eventually he tries to kill himself with a shotgun – inspired by Hemingway – but he bungles it and winds up in a psychiatric hospital. When he gets out, he retires to his house in upstate New York, more or less fazing himself out of life (and certainly out of his career). But then he becomes romantically involved with Pegeen Mike Stapleford, (Greta Gerwig), a college theatre professor in her thirties who has been living with a woman (the dean of the college, played by Kyra Sedgwick) and hasn’t slept with a man, she tells Simon, in sixteen years. She also happens to be the daughter of two of his best friends (Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya) – actors, too, which explains why she was named for the heroine of John Millington Synge’s great Irish comedy The Playboy of the Western World.

After Exit Ghost (the sequel to The Ghost Writer), The Humbling is my favorite of Roth’s last batch of novels – that is, the ones he wrote after his amazing trilogy dealing with the fallout from American political upheavals, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. (Roth was so prolific, and so much of his output is brilliant, that when you try to pick favorites, you really have to divide them up into periods. Without hesitation I’d identify him as America’s greatest living fiction writer.) My only problem with The Humbling on the page is that the opening section, which deals with the loss of Simon’s talent, is so mesmerizing that what follows – the examination of the other development of his late middle age, an unexpected sexual relationship that puts him at odds not only with Pegeen’s ex-, Louise, but also, predictably, with her parents – is a bit of a letdown. Levinson and the writers, Buck Henry and Michael Zebade, rejigger the narrative so that it never loses its focus on Simon’s acting, not just because his agent (Charles Grodin, rarely seen these days and still possessed of crack comic timing) keeps pushing him to pick up his abandoned career and Pegeen does the same, but more importantly because Simon’s only mode of seeing the world and being in it is as an actor. He’s always conscious of how he’s coming across, seeing others as an audience (like the doctor at the hospital where he’s admitted after his heart attack, for whom he performs his pain as he’s wheeled down the corridor) and or as fellow actors whose work he’s constantly assessing. When Sybil (Nina Arianda),a fellow patient at the psychiatric hospital, talks to him about her husband, whose abuse of their little girl she hasn’t been able to stop because he insisted she was having a breakdown, Simon listens at a critical distance, like a playgoer. Sybil tells him her sad tale not just because they’ve become friends: she wants to hire him to get rid of the son of a bitch. She’s seen Simon play a killer in a movie and she found him so convincing that she’s sure he must have those qualities inside him.

Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino in The Humbling.

The main difference between the novel and the movie is that the movie is much funnier. Early in the picture Simon has a classic actor’s nightmare in which, in the middle of his show, he manages to lock himself out of the theatre and can’t get the stage manager or the house manager to let him back in because neither recognizes him. (The real actor’s nightmare he gets stuck in on stage, where his recitation of the “seven ages of man” speech from As You Like It is so lifeless that members of the audience shift in their seats and cough and fan themselves with their playbills, is the one that culminates in his heart attack.) If the nightmare sounds familiar, that’s because there’s some significant but coincidental overlap between The Humbling and Birdman. It was surely that overlap that prevented The Humbling from getting released, since it had the bad luck to arrive on the scene while Birdman was already in theatres, garnering praise and starting to win awards. The distinction between the two movies is that The Humbling is actually about something (aging, and what happens to a performer when he loses his gift). Birdman is a display of showboating on top of a collection of clichés about artists and show business, some of them so moldy you can’t believe that Iñárritu and his co-writers got away with them. For example, the New York Times critic played by Lindsay Duncan who has so much power that she can get away with deliberately wrecking the Michael Keaton character’s career because of her bias against movie stars: that one goes all the way back to The Fountainhead (where it’s an architecture critic). The content of Birdman is as pointless as its style. Why would you want to film a movie on this particular subject so that it looks (roughly) like it was shot in one take? When Hitchcock tried that trick in Rope, no one took it too seriously, and then the movie wasn’t good enough to stand on its own. Birdman is even less interesting; all it has to offer is its technique, which is less clunky than Hitchcock’s in Rope but just as empty and self-reflexive.

I’ve sometimes been drawn to Barry Levinson movies that have slipped through the cracks, like Bandits and What Just Happened, an uproarious comedy about Hollywood starring Robert De Niro as a put-upon producer that should have been an instant classic. And in The Humbling, he brings out sides in Al Pacino that no one has ever seen. Pacino had become mannered and predictable on the screen, though he could still knock out an audience when he returned to the stage: I can’t remember a single thing he did as Shylock in his 2004 movie of The Merchant of Venice, but when he played it on Broadway half a dozen years later he was staggering. But as Simon Axler, he’s commanding without being flamboyant, moving without trying too hard, and his comic takes are miraculously relaxed. (In one scene that made me giggle uncontrollaby, he winds up at the vet’s with Pegeen and her folks and her injured cat; in severe back pain himself, he gets the vet to give him a muscle relaxant so that his speech begins to slur while he’s arguing with his friends over his romance with their daughter.) Pacino should do more work with Levinson, who also directed him in You Don’t Know Jack, the TV bio about Jack Kevorkian. I didn’t think that film worked; the documentary-style rhythms felt at odds with the script. But you could see that Levinson and Pacino were making a serious effort, and here, where Levinson adopts roughly the same style and plays off his star’s slightly weird slowed-down pacing, the effort succeeds. I’d say that in The Humbling Levinson is working toward a contemporary equivalent to Chekhov, beginning with naturalism and searching for the dissonant comic notes in the tragic circumstances. They often come across as absurdist; Chekhov, who tried out some proto-absurdist ideas in his final masterpiece, The Cherry Orchard, would have appreciated what Levinson is going for here.

It’s a scandal that a fabled movie actor can turn in a performance like this one and nobody even gets to see it, while the world goes crazy over Michael Keaton’s comeback in Birdman. I love Keaton, and even though Iñárritu hadn’t done much for his actors in the past (I didn’t think it was possible to coax a performance as dreadful out of Javier Bardem as the one he gave in Biutiful), I was excited as everyone else to see him in another big part after years of being unjustly sidelined. It’s not that he’s bad, exactly; it’s that there’s nothing in the role worth playing. The performance isn’t even a series of grace notes; it’s a series of sketches for grace notes. But Pacino is sheer gold in The Humbling. In fact the whole cast is on a high, including Billy Porter as a transsexual, Mary Louise Wilson as Simon’s housekeeper, and Dylan Baker as Simon’s shrink, Dr. Farr, with whom he converses with on Skype after he’s released from the psychiatric hospital. Simon is the one telling the story, in the form of his sessions with Farr, and the best running gag in the movie is Farr’s constant befuddlement at the things Simon confides in him. Simon, who can’t always remember exactly what occurred and who (though this isn’t immediately clear) tends to get confused between real-life events and his fantasy versions of them, is a classic case of an unreliable narrator. Unreliable narration has never yielded up such a rich comic vein.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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