The Humbling and the Curious Case of Barry Levinson

01/23/2015 1:00 PM |
Greta Gerwig and Al Pacino re-enact the poster for Barry Levinson's 'Rain Man'.

What in holy hell happened to Barry Levinson is not quite the ongoing heartbreak of what the ever-loving fuck happened to Rob Reiner, but it does provide consistent puzzlement, especially when taken together. The two filmmakers had enviable 1980s runs before hitting walls in the early 90s with boondoggles. Levinson’s Toys actually beat out Reiner’s North, coming out simultaneously with Reiner’s almost-last hurrah of A Few Good Men, but Levinson actually kicked around big Hollywood projects for longer, managing some high-profile if underwhelming dramas like Disclosure and Sleepers and even a mini-resurgence with the smaller Wag the Dog and Liberty Heights before rolling into a cul-de-sac of movies that seemed like they should have been better than they were; What Just Happened indeed. (Reiner, it should be said, took a worse dive, seeming almost constitutionally incapable of making a good movie for almost twenty years now.)

Levinson went small again with The Bay, a respectable Maryland-set found-footage horror picture, and goes smaller still with this weekend’s The Humbling, shot mostly around his Connecticut home, with a star turn from Al Pacino and source material from Philip Roth intended to provide the special effects. Yet somehow he’s come up with one of his worst movies ever, one that rambles and rambles and rambles like its lead character, an actor who abruptly quits a play and goes into recluse mode, only to connect with the nearby and supposedly lesbian daughter (Greta Gerwig) of family friends, and also start looking for acting work again because he needs money (the movie is stupidly unclear about the specifics of his financial situation, apparently precarious enough for a few shopping trips to bring him to the brink of desperation).

The Humbling bears some superficial resemblance to arthouse darling and current Oscar hopeful Birdman: both try to get at the interior, possibly hallucinatory life of a weary actor heading towards the end of his career, and both even build to a moment of bizarre on-stage catharsis in a New York theater. But The Humbling plays into its leading actor’s performance tics even less than Birdman, wherein Michael Keaton is noticeably, almost pointedly less manic than in some of his most famous work (he never fully “gets nuts,” a la Bruce Wayne’s most famous moment in Batman), while still drawing some electricity from his coiled energy. For better or for worse, the Pacino of The Humbling doesn’t have a note of self-parody or self-reference beyond a fondness for Shakespeare; no two-to-ten volume blasts, no hamming, not even much general shouting.

I can’t blame Pacino for not doing a self-aware riff, for wanting to commit to this character as his own person. But I must admit I would have welcomed it; anything, really, to jolt me out of the movie’s dead-ending rhythms. Throughout, Levinson cuts Skype sessions between Pacino and a therapist into the action, providing some uncinematic narration and some uncinematic Skype footage all in one. Through Pacino’s recollections to the doctor, the movie underlines its unreliable POV: instantly, then constantly, then maddeningly.

Gerwig’s presence in the movie feels almost experimental: what would it be like to drop her distinct energy into Pacino’s path? The answer is: weird. Gerwig usually performs with such honesty; this may be her first time playing a construct. Sometimes the lowness of her voice sounds a little like Winona Ryder, who might have been a better choice (though the character in Roth’s book is younger than Pacino, Ryder’s fortyish instead of Gerwig’s thirtyish). But ultimately, The Humbling would still consist of endless scenes where characters ramble at each other without listening. It would still feature a subplot where a fan of Pacino’s wants him to help her kill her husband. It would still be about a woman many decades Pacino’s junior not just finding him attractive, but doing so almost immediately.

I guess the whole thing is supposed to be kind of surreal and dreamlike, which it is, in that it is often super-tedious to listen to someone describe how in their dream, he was involved with this lesbian, only she wasn’t a lesbian in the dream, and it was his house except kind of not his house, and there was a stalker who kept appearing no matter how much he tried to run away, and Charles Grodin was there for a few minutes and it didn’t seem as weird as that would in real life. So if you’re in the market for a movie featuring an age-inappropriate relationship, well, I haven’t seen this weekend’s The Boy Next Door, but it almost couldn’t be worse.