By William Wolf


Al Pacino turns in a towering performance that is a revelation in “The Humbling,” director Barry Levinson’s film based on the Philip Roth’ s 2009 novel and among the best films in the lineup at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Pacino plays actor Simon Axler, who is in the process of a breakdown with profound confusion between his work on stage and his own life, totally entangled in his mind. The result is ultimately tragic, and Pacino makes Axler’s plight extremely poignant, but in the course of the film he also is superb delineating its comic edge in a manner I never associated with his work. It is a great, complex and highly enjoyable performance.

Credit writers Buck Henry and Michal Zebede with a fine adaptation, and credit director Levinson with turning it all into a very impressive whole with special appeal to those looking for something different and challenging. Pathetically, Axler, whose career has waned, tumbles into the orchestra pit during a performance. He is deeply depressed, requires psychiatric care and needs to take a break from acting.

Circumstances lead to his involvement with the much younger Pegeen, engagingly played by Greta Gerwig. Pegeen has been a lesbian, at least until now, and there is amusement in the aging Axler trying to be the proper partner in bed. Pegeen’s mother, played by the always excellent Dianne Wiest, is aghast at the liaison.

As part of the nutty humor, Nina Arianda as Sybil persists in pressing Axler to become a hit man and kill her husband. The more he refuses, the more she pursues him. Other key roles are well played by Charles Grodin and Kyra Sedgwick.

Axler’s mental state becomes more and more confused, reality mixed up with his anxiety and desperation. Of course, all must lead up to another performance, and Pacino builds toward this moment with the intensity of a great actor attempting his greatest role.

This is not a film for which plot descriptions can convey its wit and scope. The success lies in the moods, the oddities, the craziness, the dark humor, the unlikely relationships and the acting by all, but most especially by Pacino in one of his foremost performances. Reviewed October 5, 2014.


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