‘The Humbling’, Philip Roth’s dirty old man’s fantasy novel, in which a much younger lesbian is so awestruck by a washed-up 67-year-old actor that she’s instantly converted to the delights of heterosexuality, has now been made into a kind-of-comedy by veteran Hollywood director Barry Levinson ('Rain Man', 'Sleepers') and 'The Graduate' writer Buck Henry. And guess what feminists – the filmmakers have made the woman even younger. This would be pretty abysmal were it not for Al Pacino (looking a bit like Keith Richard’s less ravaged brother) playing Simon Axler, a legendary Shakespearean actor suffering the thesp’s equivalent of writer’s block, unable to act and possibly in the early stages of dementia.
After a suicide attempt and 30 days in a psychiatric hospital, Axler bumps into his lesbian goddaughter Pageen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of old acting friends. ‘I still remember you at your mother’s breast,’ he cringingly tells her the first time they meet. Pageen, who’s in her early thirties, had a mega-crush on him as a kid – which apparently explains why she’s so hot for Axler now.
‘Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre,’ Philip Roth wrote in another of his late novels. But other than a few jokes about his limp erection and slapsticky scenes where Pacino puts his back out, we don’t see much of that. The sex is pretty coy too. Even worse is a painfully unfunny subplot involving a stalker Axler picked up in therapy, who’s now trying to convince him to kill her husband.
What partly rescues the film is the acting. Pacino is massively sympathetic as Axler switches from being Pageen’s mentor-lover to her lapdog – petty and possessive, he peers between the net curtains to see who drops her off home. Gerwig too, is excellent, turning what is essentially a bitch role (Pageen rinses Axler for his money and mocks him for his inability to act) into a messed-up human being, a toxic, narcissistic mix of ruthless and needy. They’re both too good for this silly, embarrassing story.