If you’re in the audience of The Humbling, you’re probably (at the very least) an Al Pacino admirer, so you know all of this. What’s interesting and even, occasionally, a little unnerving about watching The Humbling is the realization that Pacino knows you know all of this. It’s not just the general actor-contemplating-actor business that opens the movie, as he applies his make-up, riffs on the “all the world’s a stage” monologue, and growls at his reflection, “Do you believe that? Was it real for you? Was it honest?” And, even more pointedly, “Were you affecting it, or are you really saying it?”
That’s compelling, sure, but not necessarily direct. However, after his character has a breakdown on stage, swan dives into the pit, and goes into counseling for depression, the line between portrayal and confession begins to blur. Pacino has a long, searching monologue — shot in a single unbroken take — in a group therapy session where he admits, “The fall was gradual. It started when I lost track of what I call my craft… It just started to recede, mainly the desire, the apetite to do it.” The audience, he acknowledges, “didn’t wanna participate with me,” and as a result, he lost his juice. The longer he goes on, and the more painful and personal the soliloquy becomes, the more the border between character and actor evaporates.
The past year or so has been oddly flush with cinematic romans à clef, from the aforementioned Birdman to Chris Rock’s nakedly autobiographical Top Five, and their ability to engage with at least a portion of the audience is probably a byproduct of our personality-obsessed entertainment press and a cultural environment where everything is, basically, a reality show. In that way, these films become more participatory and less passive, inviting us to connect the fiction and non-fiction dots; some will smile when they mention that Riggan made his last Birdman movie in 1992 (the year of Batman Returns’ release), or when Chris Rock acknowledges his frequent bad reviews in Top Five.
It’s easy to imagine that movie stars and movie makers breathe rarefied air, live in bubbles, and all the other clichés that dramatize a kind of physical removal from the likes of us common folk. Pacino might not hear the criticisms, the murmurs of disappointments from those of us who love the actor he was, and miss him. But the monologue makes clear that he’s at least self-aware enough to make them himself. “I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I can only do something I am creatively connected to,” Pacino told The New Yorker last fall, as The Humbling unspooled at Toronto — along with Manglehorn, a low-key drama from David Gordon Green (no slouch at bringing lost actors back home). Near the end of The Humbling, at his lowest depth, in a cramped dressing room, Pacino finds the words, finds his voice, and finds himself. For all its flaws, that’s what the movie does. And hopefully, that’s what the actor has done as well.
The Humbling is out Friday in limited release and on demand.