Simon Axler (Pacino) has invested his whole life in acting. He eats, sleeps, and breathes the craft, so when he finds his faculties failing, he’s at a loss. What can he do with himself if he can’t act? And how can he act if he can no longer remember his lines or maintain the energy needed to carry out a two hour play? Distraught, Simon attempts suicide, but it brings little relief. Instead of escaping his demons, he winds up facing them through an intense psychiatric program.
While it’s unclear how much Simon actually benefits from his time in therapy, the whole episode definitely switches up his life. Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of Simon’s close friends, comes to check on him and winds up staying. You know, like you do, especially when you are a lesbian with a checkered past who has had a fixation with Simon since childhood. Seeing her opportunity, Pegeen moves fast and Simon lets her. So what if she likes sleeping with women and is also his god daughter? The alternative is hanging around the house being sad. It’s not long before Pegeen’s last girlfriend, Louise (Kyra Sedgwick), is in a jealous spiral, calling Simon at all hours and lurking on his property. Unfazed, Simon just keeps answering the phone, even though when it’s a blocked number at 3 a.m. there’s really no one else it could be.
It’s also totally possible that Louise’s harassment goes on the back burner because Sybil from group therapy (Nina Arianda), has decided that Simon is the best person to kill her lecherous husband. After they all went home from treatment, she remembered Simon from a mafia movie and realized he had “experience” as a hit man. Even though he explains that that was acting and that he will have no part in this plot, she keeps popping up, determined to see this thing through.
The chaos in Simon’s life only seems to multiply as the movie progresses, but it’s never clear if it’s all happening because he enjoys the drama, he’s given up trying to manage his life, or because he’s completely delusional. There are hints that Simon is always acting, that he has a vivid fantasy life, and that suicide is still a consideration, however, The Humbling never lets us know which reality is real and which is in his head. As a result, it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to take away from the events that unfold. Clearly Simon is lost without acting as an outlet, but seriously, what the heck just happened in this movie?! There are definitely many worthwhile moments in The Humbling: the dialogue is frequently entertaining, Pacino and Gerwig are engaging, and there are elements of suspense as well as notes of Shakespearean tragedy, none of which come together in the end. Watch it for the writing. Watch it for the acting. But don’t expect to come away with a clear meaning.