Category Archives: Now Showing

THE HUMBLING

Producer:  Jason Sosnoff and Barry Levinson
Director:  Barry Levinson
Writer:  Buck Henry and Michael Zebede
Stars:  Al Pacino, Greta Gerwig, Nina Arianda, Charles Grodin, Mary Louise Wilson, Dan Hedaya, Dianne Wiest, Billy Porter, Lance Roberts, Li Jun Li, Kyra Sedgwick and Dylan Baker
Studio:  Millennium Films

B-

Like the much-lauded “Birdman,” Barry Levinson’s adaptation of a Philip Roth novel—dismissed by most critics when it appeared in 2009 as one of the author’s lesser works—is about an over-the-hill actor who tries to revive his career, but there the comparison stops. While Alejandro Inarritu’s film is all cinematic flash and speed, Levinson’s lopes along on an energy level as low as that of its exhausted protagonist. And though it plays with the idea that Al Pacino’s Simon Axler, like Michael Keaton’s Riggon Thomson, might well be hallucinating at least some of his experiences, it’s far less surrealistic in tone.

Still, one has to be thankful that while distinctly less successful overall than “Birdman,” “The Humbling” offers Pacino an opportunity to escape the near self-parody of much of his recent work (a quality that reached a crescendo in the awful “Jack and Jill”) in favor of a character operating at a far lower volume. The script introduces Axler in his Broadway dressing room as he prepares to go onstage as Jacques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Reading lines as he watches himself in a mirror, he keeps inquiring of his image whether the delivery is believable. Then, as he walks to the stage he gets disoriented and finds himself locked out of the theatre and unable to get backstage for his entrance because the staff don’t recognize him. It all turns out to be a horrible dream, of course, but when Simon does make it to the boards he dives headlong into the orchestra pit.

That earns him a stay in a psychiatric clinic, where he talks to his fellow patients about how he’s lost his mojo as an actor. But one gets the feeling that admission is itself a performance, just as he’d asked the emergency room nurse whether she was convinced by his moans of pain. In a way it’s a testimony to how convincing Simon can be that one of his fellow patients, Sybil (Nina Arianda), approaches him with the request that he kill her husband, whom she accuses of molesting their daughter: after all, he’d once persuasively played a serial killer in a movie.

Sybil will continue to press her case when the two of them are released from the facility, coming to his wooded New England estate from time to time as he refuses her again and again. But she’s not his only visitor: there’s his agent Jerry (Charles Grodin), who arrives to offer either a hair-restoring commercial or a starring role in a Broadway production of “King Lear.” (One of the better jokes, even though it’s dated even now, has to do with people coming to see him expecting another fall, just as they patronized “Spider-Man: Turn on the Dark” for a similar reason. Of course, that show’s already closed.)

But all that is secondary to the surprise appearance of Pageen Stapleford (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of old theatre friends (Dan Hedaya and Dianne Wiest), who shows up to admit that as a girl she had a terrible crush on him. A teacher at a nearby college, she’s been in a lesbian relationship for years with Dean Trenner (Kyra Sedgwick), but they’ve had a rift, and now she’s looking for something a bit different. Simon is not difficult to seduce, despite Pageen’s domineering attitude and occasional visits not only from an extremely agitated Trenner but from Pageen’s horror-stricken parents and her one-time girlfriend, now a transgendered male (Billy Porter). The relationship is clearly not without its problems, and they come to a head when Simon fantasizes about their having a child just as he’s making his return to the stage as Lear. Let’s just say his pratfall-expecting audience get even more than they bargained for—maybe.

Pacino appears to be channeling a good deal of his own professional experience to pay the haggard, psychologically fragile Axler, and the result is certainly a courageous performance, with some inspired moments—like the sequence in a vet’s office when he’s given a horse tranquilizer for his wrenched back. And the Skype conversations he regularly has with Simon’s therapist Dr. Farr (played with amusing understatement by Dylan Baker) give him the opportunity for some wryly deadpan humor, too. Yet ultimately even his herculean effort can’t entirely sell the essential absurdity of Roth’s story (as adapted by veteran funnyman Buck Henry and Michal Zebede), even as he’s garnering laughs. The Simon-Pageen relationship feels more like a literary contrivance—which it is—than a plausible reality, and the same can be said of Sybil’s approach to Axler, which at one point is implied to be a hallucination but in the end seems actually to have happened. By the close one can’t help but conclude that the film hasn’t played fair, despite the obvious commitment of the game cast down the line and the work of Levinson and his crew (including cameraman Adam Jandrup), who were clearly working under severe time and budget constraints.

“The Humbling” is an uneven, hit-and-miss affair, but it represents a comeback for Pacino and, to some extent, for Levinson, whose last feature, the virtually unwatchable found-footage horror flick “The Bay,” suggested that he might have simply lost it. This small, strange little picture indicates that the work of both is still worth watching.

STILL ALICE

Producer: Lex Lutzus, James Brown and Pamela Koffler 
Director:  Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Writer:  Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Stars: Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish, Shane McRae, Stephen Kunken, Victoria Cartagena and Seth Gilliam  
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics 

B

Julianne Moore has been accumulating accolades for her performance as a linguistics professor afflicted with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice,” and rightfully so. One of the great actresses of our day, she captures the heartbreak of the woman’s decline with a degree of nuance and subtlety that makes one wish that the adaptation of Lisa Genova’s novel by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland were entirely worthy of her. Certainly the film is sensitive and obviously sincere. But it’s also decorous to a fault when it should be devastating, underplaying the effects of the disease in much the same fashion that TV movies-of-the-week often do with such stories while nonetheless succumbing to their clichés.

Alice Howland (Moore), an internationally respected authority in her field, is on the faculty of Columbia University, where her husband John (Alec Baldwin) is a research physician. Theirs is frankly a privileged life. They have a beautifully appointed apartment and a beach house as well, and they’ve raised—and sent into the world—three fine children. While the youngest of them, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), is a bit of a concern, embracing a tenuous career as a would-be actress, the others, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish), seem successful and happy. Otherwise, all appears in good order.

But Alice begins to suffer memory lapses—getting lost in the middle of a lecture, finding herself unable to find the right word in a conference presentation—but dismisses them as trivial. It’s only when she gets lost during her customary campus jog, unable to recall where she is, that she becomes sufficiently worried to consult a doctor, who gives her tests—at first simple word problems, then diagnostic examinations—that reveal that she has Alzheimer’s which, we learn along with her, advances more rapidly when it begins so early, especially if the victim is highly educated. To make matters even worse, the disease is identified as genetic—her dead father, an alcoholic who died young, probably had it, and her children have a 50% chance of inheriting it.

The impact on all the Howlands could hardly be greater, but in this telling they all handle the revelation of Alice’s condition with a degree of equanimity that’s rather remarkable. Even the children, when informed of the fact that they might be carriers of the disease, are at most nonplussed. To be sure, there’s a taste of acidity to Baldwin’s performance: John reacts with stiffness when he talks with Alice’s physician, and later as her condition deteriorates his interest in his own professional advancement sometimes takes precedence over his commitment to what might be best for her. And while Moore captures, through small, carefully calibrated gestures, the gradual but all too swift progress of the disease—while avoiding a blatant appeal for audience sympathy even as Alice prepares a computer message to herself about possibly committing suicide—one senses a desire on the writer-directors’ part not to get overly explicit about the physical toll the condition is taking on the character, a fear that going too far in that respect might make viewers uncomfortable.

That reticence is preferable, of course, to emotional overkill; one has to be grateful that the film doesn’t become as cloying and grossly manipulative as many disease-of-the-week movies have been. (It might also spring, at least to some extent, from the fact that Glatzer suffers from Lou Gehring’s Disease, an ailment that affects the body rather than the mind but is equally debilitating.) But it does saddle “Still Alice” with a sense of genteel decorum—evinced also in Denis Lenoir’s smooth cinematography and Tammaso Ortino’s elegant production design, as well as Susan Perlman’s sets—that’s somewhat at odds with the awfulness of the subject. In that respect it resembles Sarah Polley’s “Away from Her,” another film about mental deterioration that avoids mawkishness but in doing so comes across as more intellectually than emotionally compelling. Even when it aims for the heartstrings—in Ilan Eshkeri’s mournful score, or the use of home movies to refer back to Alice’s earlier life—“Still Alice” comes across, oddly enough, as halfhearted.

And yet there’s much to admire, not least Moore’s remarkable performance, which—even more than Julie Christie’s in “Away from Her”—catches the pain of loss in the character with startling immediacy. One senses that had the filmmakers asked her to, she could have given us still more; but one should be grateful for what she does bring to the part. The prickliness that Baldwin invests John with is also memorable, and while not entirely effacing memories of her pallid turns in the “Twilight” series, Stewart exhibits some real spirit as the Howland child who proves most willing to sacrifice to help her mother, and most touched by the experience she shares with her.

Paradoxically even when pulling its emotional punches “Still Alice” can’t entirely escape the limitations of the disease-of-the-week genre, but largely as a result of Moore’s extraordinary skill it largely transcends them.