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Review: 'The Humbling' is somehow not insufferable

A take on a hated Philip Roth novel becomes hugely likable, thanks in part to a cast-against-type Greta Gerwig.
The Humbling

Greta Gerwig plays a lesbian who has the hots for Al Pacino in the magically non-oAlchemy

‘The Humbling’
Director:
Barry Levinson
Stars: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Philip Roth has taken some not unearned digs for being too forthright about his waning libido. Old man horniness is not a crime, but sometimes it seems like he’s not even trying to dispel criticism, especially when he writes something like “The Humbling.” In the new film version of a novel received with open hostility, Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, an aging theater actor, roughly Roth’s age, who somehow manages to turn hot and bothered a young lesbian, the curiously named Pegeen (Greta Gerwig). Ditching a team she’s played on for 20 years, Pegeen shacks up with the depressed, vaguely suicidal Simon, enraging her parents — his longtime friends — and exes, including one who became a transgendered male.

Roth might have been trying to shock people in this brave new world, but the saving grace, at least of the film, is that it only has a passing interest in exploring non-heteronormative lifestyles. It’s about aging and death, filtered through a senile aloofness that makes it boyish, not AARP-aged angry. Simon no longer has the energy to do Shakespeare, even when he’s actually on stage doing Shakespeare in front of paying audiences. When he runs into Peegen, whom he’s known since she was a little girl, he’s surprised when she suddenly jumps on him. Like anything in his life at this point, he just goes with the flow, barely putting in an effort as things — usually crazy people, from his agent (Charles Grodin) to Pegeen’s ex (Kyra Sedgwick) to an actually crazy woman (Nina Arianda) who wants to hire him as an assassin — come to him.

Pacino has fun playing dazed and confused, rambling exhaustedly through go-nowhere monologues, where he seems to forget words in the middle of saying them. Director Barry Levinson has fun too. Employing the handheld quasi-documentary style he’s used on “Wag the Dog,” he likes to have the camera get drift away from Simon as he talks, as though it’s even more bored with what he was saying than Simon is. Best of all it has Gerwig, who ditches her usual neurotic shtick for a brittle, cantankerous creation that is, if anything, even more appealing than her “Frances Ha” and “Greenberg” roles. So much of “The Humbling” flirts with disaster, and what happens certainly sounds insufferable. And yet — not unlike the superficially similar “Birdman,” only better — it charms its way out of its considerable issues.

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