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'The Humbling' (R)

Al Pacino delivers his best performance in years in The Humbling, a tragicomic look at a veteran stage and film actor on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

That description might seem like an unwelcome invitation for another ham-fisted late-era Pacino bit, but, from the opening shot, it’s clear that the infamously over the top actor is trying something different: subtlety.

It’s just a shame Birdman had to come out first. There’s probably only so much audience thirst for stories about hallucination prone, past-their-prime actors, but Pacino fans (and skeptics) would be remiss to skip this one, even if Birdman is the superior film.

Adapted from Philip Roth’s 2009 novel, The Humbling, directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man), introduces audiences to Axler as he limply applies makeup and recites Shakespeare to himself in the mirror. Not only is Axler worried he’s lost his talent, after 50 years of acting, he’s also become increasingly unable to distinguish reality from his imagination, a recurring theme that is used to disorient the audience throughout.

After a brief delusion, where he thinks he gets locked out of the theater and indifferent security guards refuse to let him in, Axler takes the stage, mumbles a few lines, and promptly swan dives into the orchestra. The stunt gets him thrown into a recovery center, where he is forced to confront the state of his life and mental health for the first time.

When he’s released to his Connecticut mansion, which, even after 14 years of residency, looks as though he’s just moved in, he contemplates suicide by shotgun (”Hemingway must have had longer arms,” he says after it fails) and dallies the days away till he gets an unexpected visit from Pegeen (Frances Ha’s Greta Gerwig), the young lesbian daughter of his old theater friends (Dianne Weist and Dan Hedaya).

Pegeen, who harbored a longtime schoolgirl crush on her parents’ famous friend, quickly and improbably seduces him, and the two begin a fraught relationship. She pushes him to get back to work. He buys her expensive things to try to make her look more feminine.

It’s as cynical and unsentimental as anything else in the film and never veers into uncomfortable territory, thanks in part to the fact that Pacino’s Axler doesn’t seem to take Pegeen’s affection and interest as a given.

Gerwig’s Pegeen is a thirty-something in arrested development who we always believe is in control of the situation. She’s the kind of effervescent dream girl that another movie might imagine as an unmotivated artist’s savoir and muse. Here, the “muse” is a self-absorbed brat who leaves a path of destruction after every relationship.

Pacino and Gerwig, representing both the old and new guard of Hollywood, have a fun and easy chemistry when they’re not actually being intimate (those scenes are few and far between). But, the overlong film luxuriates on these two for far too long and at the expense of the much stronger supporting performances and cameos.

Weist and Hedaya, horrified to learn of their daughter’s new relationship, share a few wonderful bits with Pacino, while Dylan Baker delivers what has to be one of the best Skype performances ever seen on film as a skeptical therapist.

But it’s Pacino’s film through and through, and he breathes life into every moment, whether he’s taking a pratfall, telling a suburban housewife that he does not want to murder her husband, or struggling to find a comfortable sleeping position.

Cast: Al Pacino, Kyra Sedgwick, Greta Gerwig, Dylan Baker, Charles Grodin, Dianne Wiest.

Director: Barry Levinson.

Screenwriters: Buck Henry, Michal Zebede. Based on the novel by Philip Roth.

A Millennium Entertainment release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, sexual situations. In Miami-Dade: Tower; in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood and Fort Lauderdale.