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The Humbling Blu-ray Review

The Humbling (2015) movie poster The Humbling

Theatrical Release: January 9, 2015 / Running Time: 107 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Barry Levinson / Writers: Philip Roth (book); Buck Henry, Michal Zebede (screenplay)

Cast: Al Pacino (Simon Axler), Greta Gerwig (Pegeen Stapleford), Nina Arianda (Sybil Van Buren), Dylan Baker (Dr. Farr), Charles Grodin (Jerry), Dan Hedaya (Asa Stapleford), Billy Porter (Prince/Priscilla), Kyra Sedgwick (Louise Trenner), Dianne Wiest (Carol Stapleford), Mary Louise Wilson (Mrs. Rutledge), Lance Roberts (Walter), Li Jun Li (Tracy)

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Having never worked as frequently as his most obvious contemporary, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino has avoided being a huge target for critics and naysayers in his seventies. But whereas De Niro has endured complaints about his lack of selectivity and willingness to slum for a big paycheck,
he at least has still managed to act in a couple of respectable movies for director David O. Russell with a third on the way. Pacino has entered his twilight years with little to discuss. Since appearing in Ocean's Thirteen back in 2007, Pacino has made few movies, mostly limited release fare soon forgotten and Jack and Jill, one he perhaps wishes we could forget. Pacino's best play for artistic relevance has been starring in a couple of HBO docudrama movies, which added to his Golden Globe and Emmy counts.

A big, triumphant return of Pacino on film is something that the world awaits and has been for as long as it's been clear that his legendary career has tapered off. There was some hope that Manglehorn, a film from director David Gordon Green that played Venice, Toronto, Stockholm, and other major international film festivals last year, could be Pacino's comeback vehicle. But it was coolly received by critics and will likely reach limited release with little fanfare from IFC Films.

Pacino's other 2014 debut, The Humbling, similarly played Venice, Toronto, and Stockholm. Similarly armed with some award season aspirations, it too received middling reviews. Its theatrical release came and went without so much as a box office record and on Tuesday it reaches Blu-ray and DVD with the stench of obscurity. That's kind of surprising given the talent surrounding Pacino in this drama based on Philip Roth's 2009 novel of the same name.

Roth's text was adapted by Buck Henry, a legend for scripting The Graduate and creating "Get Smart", as well as young newcomer Michal Zebede. The film is directed by Barry Levinson, whose Oscar win for Rain Man (1988) hasn't helped his recent theatrical work get noticed (he did direct Pacino in HBO's You Don't Know Jack). Pacino's co-stars include seasoned veterans (Dianne Wiest, Dan Hedaya, and the resurfacing Charles Grodin), respected pros (Kyra Sedgwick, Dylan Baker), and acclaimed up-and-comer Greta Gerwig. None of that talent means much, except to set viewers up for disappointment.

"The Humbling" stars Al Pacino as an aging actor at a crossroads in his life.

Pacino plays Simon Axler, a fading 65-year-old stage and film actor (who looks and acts more like Pacino's real age of 74). Simon's money is running out, as job opportunities are drying up. The only headlines he gets are for making a spectacle of himself, falling off the stage in King Lear. Increasingly, Simon's mind is failing him. His memory is unreliable and he is more caught up in his craft than in real life.

After a brief stay in a rehab center, Simon returns to his substantial, secluded wooded Connecticut estate. One day, in between his regular Skype therapy sessions (with Baker), Pegeen (Gerwig), the 30-something daughter of an old friend and colleague, pays Simon a visit. She confesses she had a crush on him as a child and though she has been a lesbian since adolescence, she remains attracted to him. They begin a relationship, the first heterosexual one of her life. When her parents (Wiest and Hedaya) find out, they vehemently disapprove of the May-November romance.

Meanwhile, the aging, suicidal, quite likely Alzheimer's-afflicted Simon tries to stay afloat, as his agent (Grodin) pitches him a hair restoration endorsement or another attempt at King Lear and a woman of questionable sanity from the rehab center (Nina Arianda) keeps asking him to kill her husband.

Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a 30-year-old lesbian who is at least his goddaughter (and maybe more), is a strange choice of romance for Simon Axler. Simon Axler (Al Pacino) struggles to describe his relationship, while playing with his smart phone.

The Humbling features a number of moments eerily similar to ones in Birdman, the show biz dark comedy recently awarded the Best Picture Oscar.
It is interesting to notice how two films with comparable themes and protagonists could draw such disparate receptions. The year that Pacino made Scarface, Michael Keaton was playing Mr. Mom. Birdman director Alejandro Gonzแlez I๑แrritu was composing music for small Mexican films when Levinson was helming big time movies like Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam.

I may not be a huge fan of Birdman, though its win bothered me much less than it would in a year where my favorites were in the running. Still, you'd have to be kind of crazy to see more value in The Humbling. Humbling certainly does not grab your attention with a single take design, a running drum score, or film industry commentary and parallels. This is a smaller movie, designed to provoke a much more muted reaction. There are aspects to like, from the scenic views of Connecticut in autumn to certain emotions that Pacino convincingly calls upon. But the story is rather meandering and ultimately unfulfilling, down to an ending nearly as unsatisfyingly non-committal as Birdman's.

The Humbling unfolds as a very organized, calculated trip. Simon's dementia is something the movie never quite gets a handle on. At some points, we're shown he is clearly imagining exchanges. Other times, he's not. It's a tricky condition to portray and Levinson commits to its depiction with even fewer convictions than I๑แrritu brings to the ambiguous fantasy elements of Birdman.

Pacino at least can be credited with stretching himself and playing something other than an explosive mentor or adversary. In quality and tone, the film resembles What Just Happened, Levinson's more satirical 2008 movie starring Robert De Niro as a fading Hollywood producer. Pacino does not compel as consistently or fully as you'd suspect from a read of the script or, presumably, Roth's novel. Still, he's a notch or two above his every co-star, especially Gerwig, who is surprisingly underwhelming as his unlikely leading lady. To date, the mumblecore alumna has been best used by writer-director Noah Baumbach, her current boyfriend whose next film she dropped out of, but Grodin is in.

The Humbling Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

2.40:1 Widescreen
Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: March 3, 2015
Suggested Retail Price: $24.99
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Blue Keepcase
Also available on DVD ($19.99 SRP) and Amazon Instant Video


The comparisons between The Humbling and Birdman absolutely end at style. The Humbling opts for a much calmer brand of chaos, its tastefully composed 2.40:1 visuals looking a tad washed out but nice. The Blu-ray boasts terrific picture quality and the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack should not muster any complaints.

Director Barry Levinson sits casually in front of some awards in his featurette interview. Al Pacino looks awfully weathered to be playing 65 on The Humbling's Blu-ray menu.


Millennium's Blu-ray includes the HD featurette "The Humbling: Behind the Scenes" (3:43),
a short making-of piece which supplies the usual blend of B-roll set footage, talking heads, and film clips.

The Humbling's HD theatrical trailer (2:21) joins the four disc-opening SD trailers for Reach Me, Elsa & Fred, By the Gun, and Fading Gigolo in a Previews menu.

The standard menu loops clips and end credits score. The Blu-ray doesn't let you set bookmarks, but does automatically resume unfinished playback.

The blue keepcase holds no inserts and is not joined by a slipcover.

Rehab buddy Sybil Van Buren (Nina Arianda) persistently tries to hire Simon (Al Pacino) to kill her husband.


Al Pacino claims a lead role of substance in The Humbling. Unfortunately, neither the legendary actor nor the accomplished talent around him can make this film work as intended. There's enough to this tale of aging with dementia to hold your interest, but not enough to leave you satisfied.

Millennium's Blu-ray provides a great feature presentation and a bare minimum of bonus features. It's strictly a one-time viewing and even then only for parties who are fond of the cast or director Barry Levinson.

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Related Reviews:
Al Pacino: Stand Up Guys • The Insider • Any Given Sunday • Dick Tracy • Ocean's Thirteen • The Godfather Trilogy • Scarface • Jack and Jill
Greta Gerwig: Frances Ha • Greenberg • Arthur (2011) | Charles Grodin: The Great Muppet Caper • Ishtar • Rosemary's Baby
Dianne Wiest: Radio Days • The Purple Rose of Cairo • Dan in Real Life | Nina Arianda: Rob the Mob
Dan Hedaya: Clueless • Blood Simple. • A Night at the Roxbury
Venus • Barrymore • Being John Malkovich • Birdman • Last Love
Directed by Barry Levinson: Good Morning, Vietnam | Written by Buck Henry: The Graduate
New: St. Vincent • Predestination • The Interview • Lenny

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Reviewed March 1, 2015.

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