To Simon Axler, the discombobulating actor at the heart of “The Humbling,” all the world is truly a stage. That’s as much because Axler’s entire life has been about performing as well as that now, pushing 70, he’s having trouble separating fact from fiction, actual discussion from scripted dialogue. Even when he displays real signs of physical pain, he wants to know if he’s “believable.”
Axler is a singular concoction from the mind of Philip Roth, upon whose book this film is based, and embodied by an actor with the uniquely unpredictable resources of Al Pacino. Add ace director Barry Levinson, a script by comedy veteran Buck Henry (“The Graduate,” “What’s Up, Doc?”), who adapted with Michal Zebede, and you’re truly in rarefied company.
Still, “The Humbling,” shot on a low budget in a mere 20 days, won’t be every viewer’s cup of tea. This shaggy, darkly comic and deeply eccentric tale begins as the suicidal Axler takes a startling swan dive off a Broadway stage during a production of “As You Like It.” The film then decidedly lurches and sputters as it follows the troubled actor through a kind of literary looking glass of emotional convalescence — or not — set mostly in and around his Connecticut country house.
If you can adjust to the film’s uneven rhythms and often illusory vibe, there’s a treasure trove of off-kilter humor, affecting pathos and first-class acting to be savored.
It’s Pacino’s game all the way. His grand theatrical recitations, roller-coaster reactions and stirring reflectivity make his loopy Simon, an unmade bed in desperate need of a month at a day spa, one for the ages. Under Levinson’s direction, the Oscar-winning actor and eight-time nominee is inventive, dizzying, profound and often hilarious. His reaction after receiving a horse tranquilizer for back pain is classic.
Pacino is also blessed with a stellar supporting cast including Greta Gerwig as Pegeen, a kooky, sometime-lesbian with whom Simon begins an unlikely affair (it’s the script’s weak link); Dianne Wiest and Dan Hedaya as Pegeen’s parents, old actor friends of Simon; Charles Grodin as Simon’s resilient agent; Tony Award winner Nina Arianda (“Venus in Fur”), especially good as an unhinged psychiatric patient who befriends — er, stalks — Simon; Kyra Sedgwick and Billy Porter (playing a transgender person) as Pegeen’s put-upon exes; Mary Louise Wilson as Simon’s unflappable housekeeper; and Dylan Baker as his Skype-happy shrink.
Prepare to be humbled — if not by this admirably offbeat film than by Pacino’s best feature work in ages, perhaps since a blind Army veteran once bellowed “Hoo-ah!”
MPAA rating: R for sexual material, language, brief violence
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino