It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
It is a wild and unfortunate coincidence that “The Humbling” comes out three months after the vastly superior “Birdman,” and that it covers so much of the same territory through so many similar images, moments and beats.
Both follow the struggles of an aging, once-great actor as he tries to regain his former glory. Both begin with the actor talking to himself in his dressing room as he prepares to take the Broadway stage, addressing his nagging, internal doubts. Both show the actor being accidentally locked out of the theater and dashing through the streets of Times Square before reentering through the lobby. And both feature the actor succumbing to sequences that blur fantasy and reality, both for him and for us as viewers.
But both also feature veteran stars doing some of their best work in a long time in their respective leading roles: first Michael Keaton in “Birdman” and now Al Pacino in “The Humbling.” Pacino dials down the manic, wide-eyed “Hoo-ah!” that has defined his screen presence over the past couple decades, and often rendered the Method master a parody of himself. Reteaming with Barry Levinson (who directed him as Dr. Jack Kevorkian in the 2010 HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack”), Pacino gives a refreshingly quiet and understated performance with poignant moments of vulnerability. It is the most consistent factor in a film that is frustratingly inconsistent.
“The Humbling” is based on Philip Roth’s 2009 novel of the same name, and in typical Roth fashion, it features an older man and a younger woman in a relationship which may seem ill-advised and even toxic, but provides some fulfillment for both parties in unusual ways. (See: “The Human Stain,” “Elegy.”) Here, the counterpart to Pacino’s Simon Axler is Greta Gerwig as a free-spirited woman named Pegeen who’s half his age. She’s also the daughter of some longtime actor friends, and a lesbian, sometimes, when it suits her; elusive and manipulative, she’s emblematic of the negative way nearly all of the female characters are portrayed in “The Humbling.” But, given that the script comes from Buck Henry and Michal Zebede, there are also many moments of intelligent humor and absurd observation. This is what we mean when we talk about inconsistency.