There’s no mistaking that The Humbling is written by and for men. The novel, written by Philip Roth, was a self-deprecating fantasy, and the film follows suit. Al Pacino stars as Simon Wexler, an aging actor who forgets how to perform and attempts suicide. Feeling lonely and sorry for himself, Simon retreats to his home outside of New York City after a stint in rehab. His first visitor is Pegen, a young woman whose parents Simon has been friends with for years. Pegen (played by Greta Gerwig) is a professor at the nearby women’s college and heard Simon was in town, so she came to say hello. Early in their conversation she lets him know she’s living with a woman, so when she kisses him that evening, he is pleasantly surprised, asking, “I thought you sleep with women?”
“I do,” she answers, kissing him again. She says she hasn’t been with a man in 16 years.
“Well i haven’t been with a lesbian in 67 years,” Simon says.
“That you know of,” Pegen retorts, continuing to kiss the much older man.
The term “lesbian” is used frequently to describe Pegen, despite her relationship with Simon. Bisexuality does not seem to exist as Simon explains to his psychiatrist (via Skype) that she’s a “flirtatious lesbian, however that’s possible.”
Pegen and Simon begin to spend a lot of time together, which upsets the woman she was seeing, who is also the Dean at the college she works at. Played by Kyra Sedgwick, Dean Louise Trenner calls Simon from a blocked number at all hours of the night, calling him “Mr. Famous” and telling him how selfish, ruthless and immoral Pegen is. She’s caught outside Simon’s home, saying she just wants to see where Pegen spends all of her time now. Louise is much less threatening in real life, clearly insecure about her lover having left her for a man.
“She told me she’d be with me forever and then three weeks later she was gone,” Louise says. She seems pathetic and crazed, a typical trope that Kyra Sedgwick is way too good for. When Simon invites her inside, she curtly asks, “Why? so you can seduce me too? It that your specialty, Mr. Axler? Converting lesbians?”
The Humbling positions Simon as if he’s a lovable schmuck who just so happens to attract insanity, with Pegen running the crazy train. She has yet another stalking ex come to Simon’s house looking for her: Prince, formerly Priscilla, her transitioning boyfriend (played by Billy Porter). Simon is perplexed, having no idea how this man could be Pegen’s “ex-girlfriend,” and no one explains it to him. He is left to figure it out (HILARIOUS RIGHT?) as Pegen says things like, “Jesus, I can’t even look at you like this” and asks who sat with him during the surgery. Prince is heartbroken and hopeful Pegen will come back to him now that she’s “sleeping with men.” Pegen is not interested, but continues to invite Prince around for lunches with her and Simon, much to Simon’s chagrin.
When we first meet Pegen, she’s wearing the “lesbian” uniform: Flannel, loose-fitting jeans and sneakers. Simon decides she needs to be more feminine and takes her shopping. He has her hair curled and compliments her grown-up and polished look, frequently making references to how she “turned into something that looks like a woman.” Everything is poised from Simon’s point of view: Pegen is moldable but asks too many questions. She’s frank about having been obsessed with him as a child (he was a famous celebrity! He gave her his prop ring from Streetcar Named Desire!) and, he’s generally flattered that a woman her age would be interested in a man of his (65, by the way).
As for their sex life, Simon has trouble getting it up and Pegen is all too happy to use toys in the bedroom. She’s got several, which the house maid instructs her to boil and sanitize more frequently. Once while using a vibrator next to Simon in bed, Pegen says, “I don’t think you fucked the lesbian out of me yet.” In these moments, it’s very clear this film was written and directed by a man.
In one of Simon’s fantasies (of which there are many), Pegen brings a girl home and they invite him to watch as they have wild girl-on-girl sex. (It’s presented in shadowy silhouettes so the actresses aren’t actually shown.) When Simon asks if Pegen has slept with anyone since they’ve been together, she nonchalantly says she has: “A couple of softball girls I found.” Pegen is selfish, just as Louise warned, and everything she does is with whimsy and shrugs until she’s challenged by someone—Simon, Prince or her parents. Speaking of, when her parents find out their old friend is dating their daughter, they are irate. (They do, however, like Pegen’s new feminine look.)
Simon and Pegen’s relationship is doomed from the start, but Pegen is what ushers Simon back to the stage and his old self. A passionate break-up right before he returns to the stage for King Lear gives him a triumphant end. Pegen, though, seems to continue on with her life as a confused lesbian who does what she wants without any care of hurting people. She will sleep with women like Louise to get the job she wants, and with men like Simon to amuse herself and upset her parents. She won’t, however, even offer support to a transitioning partner because that was too much commitment for her.
So many times in the film, Al Pacino delivers what feel like monologues that he is so clearly excited about, you can just see him acting. The meta-ness of an aging actor playing an aging actor is too real. It comes off a little desperate, especially next to Greta Gerwig’s full immersion into her role. The actress fully embodies Pegen, but she’s stuck with the vapid stereotypes she’s been provided with in the script.
The Humbling is a film about a rich white man whose sanity is put back into place by all of the insane people (women, queer people, trans people) around him. He finds his way back to “his craft” once he experiences the ridiculousness that is the lives of others. Unfortunately the movie furthers this idea even more than the original novel, padding the script with extra scenes to illustrate Pegen’s weirdness and juxtaposing them with those of Simon just trying to live a normal, sane life while dating someone 40 years his junior. At one point, he decides they should have a child, which Pegen vehemently refuses. Their relationship is flawed, to be sure, but they both keep at it because of the benefits they individually receive. Pegen gets a huge, nice home to live in with all of the fancy clothes she could want, while Simon finds the company he was seeking and flattery in the idea a woman like Pegen would want to be with a man like him.
It’s sad to think the first film of 2015 to include major lesbian and trans characters is one that views them in such a negative light. (The only credit I will give to the movie is that there are no derogatory statements made about anyone’s sexuality or gender identity, outside of the lesbian/woman comments I mentioned above.) The Humbling is yet another reminder that it’s a cisgender white man’s world, and we’re all just allowed to live in it.
The Humbling opens in select theaters and on VOD tomorrow.