Barry Levinson’s entry into this year’s Italian Contemporary Film Festival is the tale of an aging actor whose downward spiral into dementia is examined through the unreliable point of view of its main protagonist. Simon Exler (Al Pacino) is a famed actor of stage and screen whose mental troubles are starting to suddenly make themselves known. After a breakdown on stage, he’s institutionalized for a month during which he begins to try to decipher where his acting ends and reality begins. He’s soon reacquainted with, Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of some old acting friends and begins an ill-advised relationship with her which complicates his mission to figure out what is his reality and what is his own fiction.
The Humbling is one of those triply movies that disorients you and makes you feel uncomfortable throughout. Oftentimes the scenes will progress in a linear manner and then suddenly stop and shift back to three or four scenes previously, as we learn that what we had just watched was a part of Simon’s fiction. Aside from his therapist and his agent, Simon is surrounded by women. From Pegeen to a distressed and mentally unstable woman from Simon’s time in the hospital to Pegeen’s ex-girlfriends (one of whom is now a man), and Pegeen’s mother, a former colleague and old flame of Simon’s.
These women are far from positive influences in Simon’s life and for the most part, far from decent human beings. Pegeen is wildly selfish and self-involved, but admirable for her do-not-give-a-damn personality that dictates how she lives her life. An out and happy lesbian, Pegeen admits to having had a huge crush on Simon throughout her childhood and her relationship with him seems to be nothing more than the ability to say that she got what she had always wanted. Pegeen’s personality is one that invites people to love her, but who soon shows herself undeserving of that love. She’s notorious for doing as she will with people and leaving when she’s finished with them.
The funny thing is that Simon is very much like Pegeen, or was before his breakdown. He has always been more concerned with his art and his career, than with the reality that surrounds him. He has always preferred the lives of the characters in his plays and movies to those of the real people. At one point when the mentally unstable Sybil is telling him about her husband’s sexual abuse of their seven-year-old daughter, all Simon can think about is how she is performing her story. He obsesses over what he would do differently and when his therapist asks him if he asked her any questions about herself, Simon admits that the thoughts didn’t even occur to him. His therapist then asks if Simon demands to find out the back stories of the characters he plays and Simon says that he of course he does, but is shocked into silence when the therapist points out that he doesn’t possess that same curiosity for real people.
At the base of it all, The Humbling is the story of how the journey into old age can have as negative an effect on men’s careers and lives as it does on women’s. The stigma that surrounds people over a certain age of being unable to do things for the sole reason of their age is one that is faced by all genders, and is pointedly more obvious in the acting world then elsewhere. This is especially apparent at one point in the movie when Simon’s agent comes by and offers him the opportunity to do a commercial for hair loss medication. Despite being on his last dollar and being desperately in need of some work, Simon refuses to even pretend to be bald or balding, undoubtedly out of the shame of the stigma associated with it.
The Humbling is also a cautionary tale about how the way you act in your youth has a direct effect on your so-called golden years. Simon’s life is filled with only his agent and his therapist seeming to care about his well-being and they are both technically employed by him. Everyone else in his life just wants to use him for whatever reason. It’s a depressing, yet comically humorous film littered with some of the best actors working today and that makes it worth the time and effort.
The Humbling screens at Cinema Cartier Quebec City on June 15 @ 3:30pm, TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 15 @ 9:50pm, Cinema Guzzo Montreal on June 15 @ 7:00pm, Colossus Vaughan on June 16 @ 7:00pm, and Cinema Cartier Quebec City on June 17 @ 6:00pm and June 18 @ 8:30pm.
Sarah is covering the Italian Contemporary Film Festival which runs in Toronto, Montreal, and Quebec City from June 11-19. For more festival coverage, click here!