Thursday, May 7, 2020

Reserved Seating Goes All Pacino: THE HUMBLING

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who need to burn off some 2010s Pacino.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: And I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: This week, we’re covering the 2014 Barry Levinson-directed comedy/drama The Humbling, starring Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin, and Kyra Sedgwick. This film (which is like the Volcano to Birdman’s Dante’s Peak) tells the story of an aging actor named Simon Axler (Al Pacino) who has a breakdown onstage and is sent temporarily to a mental health facility. When he returns home and begins to attempt a comeback, Simon finds himself being visited by an assortment of curious characters, including, most notably. his goddaughter Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), who seduces him into an emotionally abusive romantic relationship. It’s meant to be quirkier than the way I described.

I really didn’t like this movie. It’s a slog, it’s smarmy, it features Gerwig (who I like at times) at her most insufferable level of indie nonsense (which I thought Mistress America would forever claim), but mostly it’s another screwball comedy starring Al Pacino who just isn’t the right actor for these types of movies. Pacino is an actor’s actor and always submerges himself into deep characterization, but that doesn’t right the ship in the case of The Humbling. Going back to Birdman, this movie could have worked better if a younger, weirder actor like Michael Keaton were playing Simon. Someone who seems like they’re fighting back or just as bad as the other characters. Instead it just seems like the other characters are taking advantage of a wealthy, aged man and everyone is so annoying that it saps the comedy out of every scene past the 30-minute mark. I watched this movie on IMDB TV with commercials and each break was what I looked forward to the most. I earned those commercials. This is my least favorite Pacino movie to date. It’s like if Curb Your Enthusiasm starred J. Howard Marshall.

What did you think of the movie, Rob?
Rob: I probably disliked The Humbling about as much as you did, but I’m trying to decide if I can at least find something redeeming in its execution. It’s nice to see so many different shades of Late Period Al, for one. It’s nice to see him exploring something he finds interesting. Trouble is, most of the shades are some variation of “confused” or “hobbled,” and your suggestion that a younger actor might have given the character a little more dramatic thrust is definitely apt. There’s not much fun in watching our friend Al suffer in this way. I could say that the basic conceit is interesting — an aging actor begins to lose the thread between performance and reality, between the emotions he’s feeling and those he’s affecting — but as you said, that thread would work better if the lines between his delusions were better defined or he was actively pursuing something rather than just having general Aging Male Crises. As it stands, he’s little more than a victim. Just watching The Humbling felt predatory, to be honest, and any aspirations it has about being some great literary adaptation are lost in the pretension and cynicism of the material.

Adam: The Humbling feels like a movie where the creative people involved (which also includes screenwriter Buck Henry) have much more of a need to make this movie than most people would have to watch it. It’s navel gazing and unenjoyable. It’s out of touch and really drove me crazy. There’s an argument scene with Pacino, Gerwig, Dianne Wiest, and Dan Hedaya where I thought “Ugh, this is the worst kind of screwball comedy” and just as I thought that, a cat gets its paw run over and Gerwig goes into twee overdrive. Do you have any more you want to add? Give me Hangman all day over this. Sorry this is more a tantrum than a review. I hope I made a few actual points before this movie defeated me as I was writing.
Rob: No, it’s okay. I completely agree that there’s very little entertainment value in this kind of hopelessness. It’s just soulless and academic in the worst way. It might be best seen as an example of the fine line between something profound and something masturbatory. Is this our shortest review?

Adam: It probably is.

Rob: I’m not sure what else there is to say, and I’m not sure either of us will get any joy out of bitching about it.

Adam: Agreed.

Rob: This isn’t Fun Bad or Interesting Bad. It just makes my stomach hurt.

Adam: Yeah. I knew we would reach a dark day eventually with some of Pacino’s 2010 to 2019 output. He had a rough go of it that decade with a few exceptions like Danny Collins, The Irishman, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Hopefully among the “bad” there are a few more The Recruits or Two for the Moneys that are guilty pleasures. What are we talking about next week?

Rob: Our Bomb Squad series will return with a new installment. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. I'm convinced that every post-2000 Barry Levinson movie is a front for money laundering. No one can greenlight these movies expecting a return, and they cannot be confused for art.

    1. Hahaha. I've missed pretty much everything post-2000 besides The Humbling and What Just Happened which is similar but not as bad. It's a shame. He had a good run for much of the '80s and '90s.

    2. It blows my mind that he went from Wag the Dog to Envy in less than 10 years. I'm not sure how deep on Pacino you guys are planning on going, I know he did the biopics for HBO on Jack Kevorkian and Joe Paterno. I've seen You Don't Know Jack and didn't care for it.

    3. The title is suspect, and it's a bit overlong, but You Don't Know Jack is great!

    4. He also did "The Bay" his take on the found footage horror movie which seemed like a real odd fit but ended up been one of the better entries in that sub-genre!

    5. "It blows my mind that he went from Wag the Dog to Envy in less than 10 years." Well, David Mamet wrote the former. I've long believed that scripts are more important to a movie's quality than its director. I'm no movie director myself, but I imagine if you gave me a world-class script and a reasonably competent cast and crew, I'd make a better movie than the vast majority of professional directors working with a mediocre script.

  2. I'll check out You Don't Know Jack, but I remember not liking it at all when it aired. However, that was a decade ago, so what do I know. I should correct myself a bit too, I forgot he directed Bandits in 2001. That movie is a-ok.

    As for Envy, I get that bad scripts produce bad movies, but Levinson does decide what scripts he goes into production. I think his career has given him the ability to have such discretion. And Levinson has, for the most part, spent the last 20 years choosing scripts that I do not understand. I'm being a bit unfair, I haven't seen all of the man's output (The Bay has been on my October watch list for 4 years now, and I've heard that Wizard of Lies is worth seeing.) Also, Rain Man sucks.

    1. The Wizard of Lies was disappointing. There's a movie called Arbitrage with Richard Gere that covers similar ground much better imho.