The Humbling has two major problems; that it is less than the sum of its parts, and that ‘Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)’ starring Michael Keaton exists. This adaptation of a Philip Roth novel tries to be a subtle dark comedy about a washed up actor who has problems distinguishing reality from the plays in which he has performed. In that regard it suffers from a failure of execution. But because director Alejandro Inarritu’s Birdman is about the same thing, even the strength of The Humbling seems paltry by comparison.
Al Pacino does what he can as the main character Simon. But his best moments, and they are fantastic moments, come when Simon is on stage performing Shakespeare. Considering the utter talent and gravitas that Pacino brings to Shakespeare, instead of enjoying this film you start to wonder why you didn’t just watch Pacino in Shakespeare.
Something similar can be said about Greta Gerwig, who also does what she can in an un-realised role as the romantic partner for Pacino’s Simon. Gerwig plays the daughter of Simon’s friend and a lesbian. While she gets to utter such wonderful lines like ‘I’m not a heterosexual woman’ to her transvestite ex-girlfriend, or ‘he’s my ex-girlfriend’ about the same person, any greater commentary about human sexuality or exploration of humanity that such a role would make possible is never undertaken. Instead Gerwig’s character only acts as a romantic foil for Simon.
The same thing occurs with Simon’s mental illness, which is never brought up after some initial incidents and which goes unresolved. So despite Pacino’s and Gerwig’s best attempts, this film is sadly less than both.
With regards to Birdman, when I say that The Humbling suffers from the existence of the film, the comparison is not limited to themes. Some of the same scenes exist in both movies, like the protagonist being locked out of the theatre during a performance. But Birdman always does it better. Such is the case that if you are looking for a movie that explores (the dark side of) the separation between artist and art, I would recommend that you go see Birdman. And you should absolutely see Birdman as it is a beautiful and poignant film as well as an iconoclastic departure from regular filmmaking. The Humbling plays the same game and is inferior; the only humbling that you will experience is that in your taste in movies.