Legendary actor Simon Axler (Al Pacino) is going through a crisis late in his career. Unable to remember the text and also doomed to figure out whether what is happening is real or a performance, Simon dives off the stage halfway through a Shakespeare production. After time in rehab, the mentally unbalanced actor tries to reclaim his stature on the stage. Simon also tries to find a spark with Pegeen (Greta Gerwig), the daughter of one of his ex-lovers.

Philip Roth’s novels have never been easy to adapt to the big screen. Case in point: Barry Levinson’s version of The Humbling. The macabre humour, offbeat subplots and callbacks to Shakespeare’s plays likely work much better on the page. Levinson and screenwriters Buck Henry and Michal Zebede cannot quite figure out how to make the audience care for Roth’s arrogant and thickly unlikable characters.

The one advantage that The Humbling has on film is the unreliable narration, as Simon has trouble recalling the scenes in his life that are real and the parts that are theatre. At a couple of moments, the sudden shifts between fantasy and reality disarm us. However, in comparison to Birdman and Synecdoche, New York, both absurd dark comedies that look at this divide between fact and fiction, The Humbling is not as clever as it thinks. Levinson’s drifting camera and constant use of blaring, flickering light aims to make us uneasy, but these style tics are too showy to be effective.

Instead of putting us on edge, Levinson’s film wanders between a variety of undercooked subplots. One involves Simon’s prickly friendship with Sybil (Nina Ariandra), who wants him to murder her abusive husband. Meanwhile, Simon’s May-December romance is unconvincing. Pegeen is a lesbian who is looking for something new. However, from their first scene together, the two characters never seem compatible. Considering the age difference, these scenes of romantic bliss are somewhat awkward to sit through. Gerwig brings her trademark acerbic wit to the character, but little else.

Nevertheless, Al Pacino gives one of his better performances of late as Simon, although it is not a stretch for the actor to play a thespian struggling to recapture his glory days. He mines for deep pathos in his soliloquies, showing vulnerability as Simon tries to get his life on track. Unfortunately, Pacino is the only bright spot in this drab mess of an adaptation.