Al Pacino tries to make his own Birdman and fails

Al Pacino stars as an over-the-hill actor slowly losing his identity in The Humbling, his mind lost in the various roles he has played over the years. The suicidal actor’s life takes a dramatic turn when he gets into a strange romantic relationship with a lesbian over thirty years younger than himself. The Humbling is directed by Barry Levinson and features Kyra Sedgwick, Charles Grodin, and Dianne Wiest in smaller roles. For such a star-studded cast, the film is ultimately a disappointment and failure.

The Humbling is based on Philip Roth’s 2009 novel of the same name. Simon Wexler (Al Pacino) is an aging stage actor in the autumn of his career. Depressed over his fading career and loneliness, Simon attempts suicide. He ends up temporarily institutionalized, the once great actor slowly losing his mind to some form of dementia. Pacino puts on a thick act as Simon’s grip on reality begins to confuse truth from fiction. The unreliable narration and hallucinations leaves the film’s central events up in the air as a figment of Simon’s imagination far too long. That type of storytelling in film usually produces a wow moment when everything crystallizes for the viewer, which is sorely lacking from The Humbling.

The Humbling was a pet project for Pacino, the film was made at his request after reading Roth’s novel. I believe he saw an opportunity for Oscar recognition in the role. Pacino pulls out all of his most reliable tics and histrionics as Simon. It is not a particularly subtle performance, though I guess it is more effective than Pacino’s other recent roles. The movie ultimately fails because the character that Pacino has created on the screen is simply not that interesting. Simon has a fondness for quoting Shakespeare from roles he has played in the past. Unfortunately, Pacino is not the right actor to deliver impeccable lines from the bard. Simon becomes more and more feeble in body and mind; the confused narrative paints a man losing his memories when it wants something dramatic.

Barry Levinson experiments a little too much with the chaotic narrative

Simon’s passion for life gets renewed when he meets Pegeen Stapleford (Greta Gerwig), a lesbian that grew up idolizing the famous actor. A daughter of parents that once worked with Simon on the stage, Pegeen has had an unhealthy obsession with Simon since she was a young girl. Her motivations for the relationship are glossed over. The relationship as depicted feels very much like a literary creation. It’s hard to accept their relationship on the surface.

Pegeen has all sorts of odd characters from her background popping up, including a former lesbian boss (Kyra Sedgwick) that keeps calling Simon and another ex-girlfriend that is now a post-op transsexual male. More bothersome than the colorful characters is the bizarre romantic relationship between Simon and Pegeen, which never feels real for one moment. Greta Gerwig is fairly aloof as Pegeen. One never really gets a sense of where she is coming from and why she’s hanging around this older actor going senile.

The Humbling is more of an acting exercise than a fully realized script. It occasionally becomes fun and interesting when Pacino has another character to bounce his talents off of in a scene. Barry Levinson experiments a little too much with the chaotic narrative, turning a subtle emotional portrait into confusion at times. Lost in a hallucinatory telling of Simon’s unreliable memories and narration, the film’s eventual themes only become apparent after a rather boring hour of wish-washy drama. The similarities to Birdman are unavoidable, a better conceived (and Oscar winning) film. Avoid The Humbling unless you must see every Al Pacino film.

Movie ★★☆☆☆

In the lights @ 6:21

The Humbling arrives on Blu-ray in lackluster picture quality. The independent film hits the format courtesy of distributor Millennium Entertainment on a BD-25. Presented in 1080P video, the 106-minute main feature gets a less than stellar AVC encode. The limited budget did not go towards its cinematography – this is one of the poorer looking movies shot with the normally reliable Arri Alexa digital camera. The Humbling retains its intended 2.39:1 scope aspect ratio on this BD.

The palette is not warm or inviting, favoring heavier earth tones and restrained primary colors. The Humbling’s pedestrian video quality has rather average definition and clarity. Close-ups are mildly sharp but lack the type of superior resolution most expect from a new film in Hi-Def these days. This is just not a picture-perfect film outside of a few carefully developed scenes.

A few compression issues crop up, especially in the darkest scenes. While there are no overt artifacts, the soft clarity and mushy picture are possibly derived from sub-par compression rates. The biggest issues are the dull black levels and clipped white levels, washing out color balance in some shots.

Video ★★★☆☆

The primary audio option is a limited 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack that occasionally takes an adventurous sonic path. A secondary 2.0 Dolby Digital at 192 kbps soundtrack is also included. The Humbling is a dialogue-driven film, rarely needing the full sweep of a surround presentation. Nevertheless, its surround mix uses a number of flashy discrete surround events. That includes placing characters speaking from behind the listener and other ambient cues. I found the lossy stereo presentation to have better channel balance and largely equal fidelity, which surprised me.

More of a real issue is the soft dialogue. This is one of the most quiet lossless soundtracks on the format, requiring a massive increase in volume over other Blu-rays. Pacino mumbles his way through several scenes, practically forcing one to engage the subtitles for comprehension. Other actors clearly speak their dialogue but the huge dynamic range leads to problems when Pacino starts muttering his lines.

Millennium Entertainment provides optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles in a white font. The subtitles display within the scope aspect ratio at all times.

Audio ★★☆☆☆

Millennium Entertainment doesn’t bother to provide many special features, including a brief featurette and some trailers.

“Making-Of” Featurette (03:43 in HD) – A three-minute featurette that somehow manages to interview Barry Levinson, Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig in short soundbites. If all three were interviewed, where did the rest of the footage go? There is actually a bit of real information to be gleaned here but its brevity leads to a bonus feature with no real depth.

The Humbling Trailer (02:21 in HD)

Previews (09:01 in SD) – Trailers for other Millennium Entertainment releases: Reach Me, Elsa & Fred, By The Gun, Fading Gigolo. These trailers play before the main menu and can also be accessed from their own menu option.

Extras ★☆☆☆☆

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For more information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.