Al Pacino is a whirling dervish of a screen presence. He sucks the air out of the room for anybody brave enough to take a role alongside him. Whoever it is will definitely be outshone. But that doesn’t mean that the venerable, but barely-decorated, actor doesn’t need supporting foils. He does. Because nobody is so interesting that you want to listen to him for the entire two hours, though in “The Humbling” there is scarcely a scene where he’s not present. It’s just that the focus might temporarily be elsewhere, what with his lesbian goddaughter deciding to seduce him.
Yeah, the plot is ridiculously scandalous enough to at least add some secondary interest to watching Pacino do his thespian thing. He plays Simon Axler, a veteran Shakespearean stage actor who has suddenly lost his mojo. Feeling that a demise of acting chops would be a fate worse than death, he decides to literally take a flying leap into the orchestra pit at a moment when it happens to be devoid of orchestra members. Wham on the concrete. Go straight to the asylum. Do not pass Go. Do not collect your next paycheck, either, because you’ve forfeited that with flamboyantly abandoning your role and all.
Not surprisingly, Simon encounters a few other colorful cases in the mental institution, one of whom is openly recruiting him to murder her philandering husband for her. Simon doesn’t even manage to escape her unwanted attention after he is released, because continues pursuing him with fistfuls of dollars that he seriously needs… but not at that price.
Simon is also visited by his young goddaughter, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), who freely and happily confesses that though she’s been a self-avowed, practicing lesbian for 16 years, she’s had a crush on Simon since she was a little girl.
Simon tries to work through all this craziness by Skyping his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), who seems to be fairly level-headed, actually. (Wonder if Skype sessions are discounted?) But not even his psychiatrist can tell if Simon is actually experiencing things or imagining them, like Pegeen bringing home a new girlfriend. Like one of Pegeen’s exes stalking him and warning him of Pegeen’s vindictiveness (we’ll get a chance to see that later). Like Pegeen’s mom (Diane Wiest), long since absent from his life, coming back to haunt his memory of their brief fling many decades ago.
Yes, it’s a bit of art imitating life, what with Mr. Pacino’s well-known interest in the stage and his status as a lifelong bachelor. And we never quite know when Mr. Pacino is acting and when we’re getting the double-barreled overflow persona we are accustomed to with him. And the irony of this movie is that Pacino’s character can’t tell when he’s acting and when he’s not, which puts all of us in the same boat.
You can love or hate Al Pacino, applaud him or despise him… and maybe both simultaneously. But you can’t not look at him perform.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.