Review: ‘The Humbling’ is an unnecessary adaptation of a bad book

VENICE – The first scene in “The Humbling” ends with a once great veteran actor falling flat on his face. Well, quite.

“Do you believe that? Was that real for you?” Oh, Al Pacino. Playing a formerly great, now floundering actor like a needy lover, the scene begins with Simon Axler (Pacino) monologuing to himself in his dressing room. He's due on stage any moment to deliver Prospero's closing remarks in “The Tempest” (“We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep”).

After a brief diversion (the first in many strange hallucinatory episodes dotted throughout the film where Axler falls asleep or into some sort of waking reverie revolving around his insecurities), he pulls himself together and braves the spotlight. He does a bit of Shakespeare, pretty badly, and then proceeds to swan dive spectacularly off the stage and land, a crumpled heap, in the orchestra pit. It's a dramatic — some might say overly dramatic — way of telegraphing a fall from grace.

The subsequent film is mainly concerned with Axler's attempts to come to terms with having lost his talent. He does this through the time honored process of unsuccessfully attempting to plagiarize Ernest Hemingway's suicide, checking into an asylum and embarking on an affair with Pegeen, a self-described lesbian who clearly hasn't been paying much attention to the usual preferences of said orientation. Heart-breakingly, she's played by the heretofore entirely luminous Greta Gerwig. Pacino himself isn't exactly bad, but he's far from good, and it's difficult to see past the terrible role. I also have a strong suspicion that the part may have been altered at Pacino's request to give him the opportunity to quote Shakespeare more often, especially in the King Lear-based finale.

The first thing to say about “The Humbling” as an adaptation of the Philip Roth novel is that it's not quite as lurid as the book. Writers Buck Henry and Michal Zebede have clearly made some effort to neutralize the squick factor that would have been involving in playing out some of the book's sex scenes in any detail. It would take quite the stickler for unstinting fidelity in works of literary adaptation to insist that the film would have been improved had we seen Al Pacino having anal sex with Greta Gerwig. Instead, there are gentler (on balance preferable but it's all relative) scenes of Axler finding himself unable to get an erection and Pegeen modestly sorting herself out with a vibrator. Strap-ons are limited to a brief cameo appearance as Axler's cleaner attempts to help the couple store their toys more sensibly.

The sleaze of the source material is difficult to entirely dilute. One wonders what the casting call for the character of Tracy (Li Jun Li) said. “An attractive woman flirts with Pegeen in a bar before returning to Axler's house with Pegeen for a threesome. Don't worry, it's implied afterwards that the threesome is all in Axler's mind.” The thing is, if you keep watering down Roth's smut, what's left? Basically just some mumbling from Pacino about how he don't get no respect, which eventually amps up into an incredibly shrill shouting match in a stairway, Gerwig's character having gone full-on shrew by that point.

It should go without saying that there's nothing wrong with threesomes and dildos and so on — it's all part of God's rich tapestry. But when they're combined with beautiful young lesbians who can be turned straight by suicidal old men, most viewers will be wary that we're in the realms of fantasy. There's nothing wrong with fantasy either, but if fantasy is all this film is trying to be, it should be far more enjoyable — it's hard to see who would get a sexual buzz out of any of this, since it's paradoxically been deliberately tweaked to forestall accusations of gratuitousness.

Despite the half-hearted clean up, “The Humbling's” sexual politics are hardly enlightened, most especially with respect to transpeople. When Pegeen's former lover, who she thinks of as female, shows up having had sexual realignment surgery — his name is now Prince — she screams at him for having destroyed the breasts she loved. Over a meal in a restaurant with Pegeen and Axler, Prince says he has to use the bathroom. “Which one?” asks Axler, a crass comment which provoked gales of laughter in the screening I attended.

Sure, you can argue that the characters themselves aren't enlightened and that the film is showcasing their old-fashioned attitudes, but I don't think that's what's going on here; there's no analysis or commentary implied. As pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian puts it: “It”s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.”

The impulse to adapt novels by the big names in American literature is understandable – but why choose this one?

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