By Don Stradley
Creators of movies like The Humbling and Birdman must have declared open season on stage actors. They've come to the conclusion that stage actors are ripe with anger and vulnerability, and also are prone to hallucinating and losing their grip on reality. In other words, stage actors are serving the same purpose for filmmakers in 2015 as divorced women once served in the 1970s. I suppose The Humbling is to Birdman what An Unmarried Woman was to Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.
Al Pacino plays Simon Axler, a once famous actor who has lost his nerve, lost his talent, lost his desire. One night, after a horrible nightmare in his dressing room, he takes a deliberate swan dive off the stage during a performance of Shakespeare's As You Like It. When he's rushed to the nearest hospital, he asks a nurse if his howls of pain sound convincing.
The Humbling is basically a one-man show, with Pacino doing a convincing job as a man slowly losing his grip on all that he once held dear. As he recovers from his fall, he attracts a coterie of weirdoes into his life, the main one being Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the feisty daughter of an old friend. Pegeen is a lesbian, or used to be, but now she wants Simon. She casually tells him that she's been having inappropriate thoughts about him since she was eight. Simon lets her move into his rented home, but two of her ex-girlfriends, including a transsexual, begin showing up on the property, warning Simon that Pegeen is nothing but trouble. Pegeen's parents are disgusted when they learn she's taken up with nearly 70-year-old Simon Axler. There's also a woman Simon met in rehab who wants him to murder her husband.
Through all of this, Pacino growls and shambles. He hobbles around his property like Richard the Third, but not so desperate for a horse. Much of the time he looks exasperated, his hair sticking up like Albert Einstein with a dye job, as the mercurial Pegeen runs him through the emotional ringer. He knows that letting her into his life was a mistake, but tells his analyst via Skype, "So what? Three quarters of our lives are mistakes."
Barry Levinson, a director with a half-dozen great movies to his credit, gives the story of Simon Axler a subdued treatment, quietly sneaking his camera around Pacino as if he doesn't dare disturb the great man's space. This isn't the brash Levinson of Diner, or Rain Man. It is the work of a director walking on his tip-toes.
Yet the soft touch applied by Levinson fits. Simon Axler is fading from this life, and he is doing so not by raging against the dying of the light, but by looking inward, and being puzzled by what he sees. He's in a desperate position. He's dumped the one love of his life - acting - but he can't fathom what might replace it. He thought he might write his memoirs, but publishers aren't interested. He's a man without a Plan B.
The screenplay was co-written by Buck Henry, based on a novel by Phillip Roth. The concept of an actor losing touch with reality is hackneyed, but it's interesting to see Pacino play with it. He's good enough to make the idea seem plausible, and we see him nursing it, pondering it. Still, much of the humor in the movie is stale, like the generic gags about vibrators and sex toys, and wondering which bathroom is used by a transsexual. A cast that includes such stalwarts as Charles Grodin, Dianne Wiest, Dan Hadaya, and Kyra Sedgewick, deserved better. They have little to do but leaving us to wonder which of them have had plastic surgery.
Another man with no Plan B is John May in Uberto Pasolini's Still Life. May is a UK government worker who tends to those unfortunate souls who die in anonymity, those with no next of kin. May (Eddie Marsan) oversees their funerals, and tries to contact a relative of the deceased. When he does happen to contact someone, he's usually rebuffed. "I understand you're busy," we hear him say over the phone to an uninterested family member. May often attends the funerals by himself, just so the dear departed have a witness to their burying.
He's stunned when he learns his department is being downsized. He's suddenly unemployed, but his supervisor allows him finish his last assignment. Then sadsack John is off, working his last case.
Pasolini directs his movie with a dainty, almost precious approach. We see numerous scenes of May standing alone at a bus stop, or in a crowd, unnoticed, as if he is the 'still life' of the title. He's a lonely man, awkward around people. When he goes through the belongings of one of his dead clients, he often keeps the photographs he finds and puts them in his own scrap book.
Marsan is one of England's great character actors these days, and he makes John May watchable. We understand that May is isolated, probably of his own doing, but Marsan never makes him seem pathetic or pitiable. He's simply a man doing his job. Nothing else in his life has ever interested him as much as his work.
I liked this movie. I liked the side characters that are brought together as a result of May's research into his final case. I liked it, that is, right up until it's silly ending. In the final minute, we get a double dose of irony followed by sentimentality that doesn't amount to much. We liked John May. When a female character played by Joanne Froggatt invites him out for tea, we want him to go and have a good time. But Pasolini doesn't want happiness for his characters. He wants, instead, to be ironic and fatalistic. Some viewers may be moved by the ending. I wasn't.