Al Pacino returns to Venice in fine fettle with Barry Levinson’s The Humbling, based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name. The story revolves around an aging actor who loses his gift. What happens to actors when they can no longer remember their lines or worse when they can no longer deliver them? Levinson and Pacino, who bought the film rights as soon as the novel came out, have a lot of fun finding out.

Pacino is acclaimed stage actor Simon Axler. We meet him backstage, warming up and talking to the mirror, asking his reflection how good his recitation is. He has two masks, one representing comedy, the other tragedy, and these masks could be a metaphor for this film: we watch the tragedy of a man losing his talent and losing his mind, but at the same time there are lots of laughs to be hand on the way. Axler gets lost backstage and finds himself outside a boxed in an alleyway. When let back in, he isn’t recognized and is summarily kicked out of the theatre (much like Michael Keaton’s character in Birdman).

We discover that this is all in his head and this is the joy of the film: we are not always certain that what we see is occurring or whether it is a figment of Axler’s vivid imagination. After throwing himself off stage, Axler heads to rehab where he meets Sybil (Nina Arianda). She wants Axler to kill her husband, who she claims is sexually abusing her daughter. Back home, Axler receives a visit from Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the lesbian daughter of his old theatre friends. Pegeen has worshipped Axler since she was a little girl and her childhood obsession was with a successful actor, not this crusty old man who can’t seem to pick up a bag without throwing his back out. How long can he resist the lure of the stage despite its risk of further humiliation?

As the film leads towards Axler’s return to the Broadway stage, the situation around him becomes ever more chaotic and surreal, leaving the audience to wonder just how much of all this is really going on. But it doesn’t really matter because it is all real to Axler. Pacino is in every scene of the film and we see everything from his viewpoint; real or not this is his experience. For this particular actor, life and performance have somehow become fused and there is no way for him to work out what is real any more.

As he has done so often in the past, Levinson has made an intelligent, incredibly funny and most human film. The cast, including Dianne Weist as Sybil’s mother and Charles Grodin as Axler’s agent, are a pleasure to watch, with Gerwig feisty and funny as Pegeen. Pacino’s performance never wavers: he seems to have shouted himself out and this husky voiced, more mature Pacino appears to be done with histrionics. He is the antithesis of Axler: though of a similar age, his glittering talent seems far from waning.