To release a movie about the theater/acting in the wake of Birdman is enough of a challenge in and of itself in terms of being even remotely comparable to a film that's been hailed as "a thought-provoking and inventive exploration of artistry, family and the difference between popularity, power and prestige." To release a movie adapted from a Philip Roth novel adds to the kiss of death factor, indeed. But such is the nature of Barry Levinson's The Humbling.
After Simon Axler (Al Pacino) decides to face plant onstage (a tamer version of what Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson decides to do) in the middle of a performance of As You Like It, his stock as an actor severely declines. Beforehand, Axler ominously repeats the classic line, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts." Before he can take the stage, however, he gets locked out the venue (again, channeling a scene from Birdman).
To cope with his humiliating performance, Simon is prompted to check into a mental facility for a month where he meets another slew of crazy people, including Sybil Van Buren (Nina Arianda), a traumatized mother who witnessed her husband sexually abusing their daughter. Remembering that Simon had once appeared in a film as a hitman, she asks him to kill her husband for her. He declines.
In spite of serving his time at the facility, Simon continues to have Skype therapy sessions (the wave of the future) with his psychiatrist, Dr. Farr (Dylan Baker), who notices discrepancies in Simon's stories as time goes on. Dr. Farr is particularly skeptical over Simon's relationship with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), a mid-20s college teacher (though in the novel she's the a much more age-appropriate 40-years-old), the daughter of a couple Simon acted with in the theater way back when. The moment Pegeen shows up into his life, so too, do many others, including two of her ex-lovers, Priscilla, an F to M trans who now goes by Prince (Billy Porter), and Louise (Kyra Sedgwick), the professor responsible for getting Pegeen her teaching job.
To add to the unexpected revolving door of people invading his property, Sybil tracks him down in order to, once again, ask if he can kill her husband for her. Disturbed and generally irritated by his life at the moment, Simon begins to wonder if maybe he should have gone through with his Hemingway-inspired shotgun plans after all. Unlike the novel (and very much like Birdman), it's hard to tell exactly when Simon is having a fantasy--or perhaps if it's all fantasy to begin with.
The blinding narcissism pervading Simon's mind is very much in keeping with your standard Roth character (you may, in fact, want to check out the character inspired by Roth himself in Listen Up Philip). It's also interesting to note that The Humbling, Roth's thirtieth novel, was universally panned by book critics as, among other things, "an embarrassing failure," and so it's somewhat odd that Al Pacino would want to buy the rights to the novel and try, in his own self-involved way, to transform it into something it could never be: amazing. Then again, it can be said that maybe Birdman borrowed from The Humbling since the latter was released in 2009 in literary form. And, in turn, the film version has now unsuccessfully borrowed from Birdman. In any case, they both conclude with largely similar denouements, begging the question: does theater drive every actor to madness?