Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Thanks for Sharing

Stuart Blumberg's Thanks for Sharing, a smart, Shame-lite ensemble dramedy centering around three men in recovery for sex addiction is one of the more surprising films of the year.  In its affably low-key, albeit slight way, Blumberg has fashioned a film that's nearly better than it has any right to be, showcasing the daily struggles of recovery with a refreshing honesty and earnestness, infusing it with a nimble and disarming charm and rarefied sense of humanity.  Thanks for Sharing also points the surface the problematic ways in which movies are often marketed-- the trailers and promotional materials gloss over the heavier weight of the subject matter in lieu of pretty movie stars like Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow bantering drolly with the tease of naughty, R-rated imagery and words flutter about-- it was presented as a disposable sex comedy about sex addiction.

And yet the movie, which Blumberg co-scripted with Matt Winston, is a sobering and melancholy ensemble comedy of manners that vibrates in the convivial camaraderie of the men in different stages in their Twelve Step process.  The most refreshing component of Thanks for Sharing is in its sharing, where the group of addicts circle around and openly talk, and yet it feels different here than in the countless iterations of the recovery process that's been canvased throughout the decades on film and television.  The acting is never IN ALL CAPS big with whooshing and histrionic fits, the writing isn't punctuated with big moments and clever word plays to mash everything together-- it's quiet, it's low-key, slightly humorous and impacting because it isn't played to the last row.  In short, it may be the least heavy-handed showcase for the most heavy-handed of subjects.  All of which makes the characters, their evolutions and struggles all the more surprising, alert and nearly moving.

Adam (Ruffalo) is a five-years sober environmentalist.  He's so rigid in his program that he's barred televisions and laptops from his home-- he still uses a flip-phone as a way to avoid his out-of-control past self from relapsing with contemporary wi-fi-enabled smartphones.  Mike (Tim Robbins), long in recovery is his sponsor.  Adam acts as sponsor to Neil (Josh Gad), a still on the wagon MD who is only half-assing his court-mandated treatment for groping female bystanders on the subway.  The film swiftly travails their three stories as they navigate one day at a time, tempted and coping through three very different stages of recovery.  Life lessons ensue, but Blumberg instills a humanistic approach throughout his somewhat episodic movie, which has the look of a chic HBO comedy series, but the tone and rhythms of something akin to The Kids Are All Right, which Blumberg earned an Oscar nomination for co-scripting.

Adam's life starts to change when he meets Phoebe (Paltrow), a very Paltrow-ian creation of a civilized adult New York woman; they meet adorably and agree to date exclusively-- a terrifying notion to Adam, who knows he will have to come clean sooner or later about his past bad behavior and the addiction that lives inside him.  Phoebe's sexually freeing bravado works as come on and threat.  Mike is upended by the return of his wayward son Danny (Patrick Fugit), a recently clean addict of his own who's white-knuckling it without the assistance of Twelve Steps, bubbling to the surface the ugliness of Mike's own past.  Neil's universe is changed after a fall from grace that sees him fired from his job, only to be brought back up by the unexpected friendship of Dede (Alecia Moore, or Pink), a female recovery compatriot.  The point in the journey and not particularly in the conclusion, and Thanks for Sharing does a persuasive job in shading these characters into three-dimensional people, even while putting them in potentially cliché-ridden situations.

The romantic comedy portion is the weakest as written, despite the overall terrific participation of Ruffalo, as the dialogue and meet-cute come-ons between the actors read too overly staged and manufactured by clever Hollywood screenwriters versus the awkward, more reality-based rhythms the film is getting after.  It's not until the story starts getting resolved that it feels real.  Paltrow, for instance, isn't particularly given much of a character outside her well-known celebrity and GOOP-ish persona until the nearly the end of her arc, the bulk of her scenes speaking seem like pastiche of two decades worth of terrible romantic comedies.

I wished the arcs and narrative lurches were a little less diagrammed and overly pat as well, but Blumberg demonstrates a light touch, especially when the temptations of each of the characters reach their boiling point.  This is hardly groundbreaking stuff, but it's sensitively rendered and acted, and the slow burn trick of Thanks for Sharing is that you start to slowly, and in some cases nearly besides yourself, care for these characters.  B

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