There's something bracingly honest about The Humbling, Barry Levinson's movie about a 67-year-old Shakespearean actor, played by Al Pacino, who, after being struck with crippling anxiety, gets his mojo restored — some of it, anyway — by a manipulative muse (Greta Gerwig). Based on the 2009 Philip Roth novel of the same name, this is a movie made by an old man, about an old man, starring an old man, from source material written by an old man. But Levinson and Pacino's willingness to explore the creakier end of life isn't a drawback; it's what gives The Humbling its bittersweet vitality.
Levinson doesn't make the mistake of trying anything fancy here: The movie was shot in 20 days at his own Connecticut house, a stand-in for the quiet, unlived-in country home to which Pacino's Simon Axler retreats as he tries to pull his life, and what's left of his career, together. The low-key approach works, save for a few rough spots, such as the shaky, darkly comic subplot in which an unhinged acquaintance (played by Nina Arianda) tries to lure Simon into a murder scheme.
In some quarters, the movie may suffer in comparison to Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman, a much flashier piece of filmmaking that also deals with an aging actor's struggle to stay relevant. But if The Humbling — which was adapted by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede — is the more conventional picture, it's also the one that really dares to tread into painful territory. To watch Simon shuffle his way to his lady's side, bearing a libation he hopes will please her, is to see a man so undone by love that his aching joints mean nothing to him. He makes a joke of his decrepit state, but something in his eyes tells us that inside, he still feels 22.
Pacino is marvelous — he writes in big, loud loops, as usual, and just when you want to suggest that maybe, just for a bit, he might try to use his indoor voice, he pulls himself back to reveal the gruff, subterranean grandeur that made him a great actor in the first place.
Gerwig is the weak link. As Pegeen, the sometime-lesbian love vixen who lures Simon into humiliation, she doesn't have the aura of hauteur necessary to play the womanly schemer — there's nothing remotely mysterious about her. Still, Pacino makes us believe there is: When he looks at her, he's an anguished lion with a thorn in his paw — his eyes hold the weary truth that if love will kill you, not loving at all will kill you quicker.
Pacino is so good at being lovesick that, even if his performance in Carlito's Way is the zenith he'll never top, it's still a deep, shivery pleasure to watch him play a man consumed with love. If we ever get too old for that, it's the end of movies as we know them.
THE HUMBLING | Directed by Barry Levinson | Written by Buck Henry and Michal Zebede | Millennium Entertainment