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Pacino turns down the volume for role in 'The Humbling'
Al Pacino portrays Simon Axler and Nina Arianda portrays Sybil in “The Humbling.” - photo by Alchemy

‘The Humbling’

Starring: Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Dianne Wiest, Charles Grodin and Dan Hedaya

Running time: 118 minutes

Rating: R for sexual material, language and brief violence

Rank: 2.5 out of 4 stars

We have forgotten how subtle Al Pacino could be, pre “Hoo Hah!” Something about his Oscar winning turn in “Scent of a Woman” unleashed the beast, a performer as big, broad and puffed up as that mountain of hair he keeps teased about his head.

So it’s a bit of a jolt to see him as Simon Axler, a famous, fading stage and screen actor who is losing his grip and ability to stay on script in “The Humbling.” He rarely allows Simon the Pacino bellow, rarely cranks up the heat and the volume as Simon shambles offstage, his career seemingly at an end.

And that’s a shame, because if there’s one thing the sometimes funny/often sad “Humbling” could use is fireworks. Barry Levinson’s film, based on a Buck Henry (“Heaven Can Wait”) adaptation of a Philip Roth novel, shambles along the way Simon does, with witty, coherent stretches and droning theatrical self-absorption that’s as dull as a sleepwalk through Shakespeare.

We meet Simon prattling on to himself, backstage, applying his own makeup as Jaques, the dry, wise fool of Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

“Just do your words,” he says. “Shakespeare will do the rest.”

Simon alternately flatters himself and then insults his line readings. We forget he’s Simon and remember Pacino’s lifelong love of Shakespeare, his many stage performances and occasional films based on the Bard. And we remember Pacino, like Simon, is an acting “lion in winter.”

He forgets his lines, falls off stage and considers suicide. Next thing you know, he’s in a sanitarium. He and we wonder if anything that’s happened is real, or if it’s all in his head. The nutty fellow patient (Nina Arianda) who insists she caught her rich husband sexually abusing their young daughter? She may be real, and she may want Simon to kill her husband. Because, you know, she saw him do it in a movie once.

Dylan Baker is Simon’s shrink, preferring to do analysis via Skype. Charles Grodin is the old actor’s elderly agent, wishing he could get Simon to attempt another role.

And then, it’s home to convalesce. That’s where Pegeen, the lesbian acting professor daughter (Greta Gerwig) of two old colleagues finds him.

“You know, when I was like 8 and you were like 40? I had a massive crush on you.”

So begins an affair with this much younger woman, and more humiliations, great and small, that pile up around Simon like kindling needed for burning him at the stake.

“Everything I got,” the old man sighs, “I deserve.”

It’s a navel gazing movie with far too much of Pacino, even at his wittiest, chatting to Baker via computer screen, or bantering with Gerwig, queen of the mumblecore comedy. On the whole, there aren’t enough witty things for Simon to say.

And the snatches of his stage performances are dreadfully dull, draining the life out of Shakespeare by destroying context and Method Acting the lines to death.

It was never going to be “Birdman,” another film of an actor, facing his real self, in comic crisis. But “The Humbling” should have been more brisk, should have been cut, and should have had more of the Pacino who finishes this thing off with a flourish. The soul searching and sense of a life misspent are interesting. But there’s an awful lot of hooey before we get to the “Hoo hah.”

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