Contrary to what you might think, making an engaging movie about sexual addiction, an issue replete with all the misunderstanding and innuendo in the world, is not the slam dunk easy proposition you might imagine it to be.
One goofy step to the right and you’re fair and square in Something About Mary laugh track heavy tits-and-titter territory, your main demographic devolved down to gawking teenage boys who think there’s something hilariously appealing about being unable to control the need to sexual pleasure yourself in whatever form it takes.
One prurient, indie-serious step to the left and you are suffocating under the weight of so much worthiness and self-aware introspection that the very act of getting up for breakfast seems like an existential act of great portent.
To my great relief, Thanks For Sharing, directed and co-written by Stuart Blumberg (along with Matt Winston), one of the writers on one of the best dramas of 2010, The Kids Are All Right, doesn’t take either route, preferring a deft meld of weighty consideration, raw emotional journeys and a pleasingly light rom-com air.
Mixing all three ingredients together could have gone horribly wrong at any point, but the balance is maintained throughout, only threatening to come undone in the final act when the self-control so clearly cemented in place for two of the three main characters threatens to spectacularly and damagingly unravel.
Testament to Blumberg’s well-considered touch, what could have a melodramatic denouement to otherwise skillfully calibrated proceedings doesn’t go down the expected route, though neither does it quite end up where you think it’s going to.
At least for one of the characters anyway.
It is this fittingly relevant directorial control that most impressed me about Thanks For Sharing, a movie which purports to show the real struggles people go through trying to uphold sobriety of the sexual kind (though references are made to drug and alcohol addiction), and the damage done when they fail to achieve the desired mastery over their destructive desires.
Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is the first of our character studies, a man who, on first glance, looks to be in need of very little in the way of aggressive self mastery.
A consummate professional and green activist of the business kind, who lands clients like the US Postal Service while the rest of us struggle to get our coffee order right at Starbucks, he has the funky, lavish apartment and lifestyle of a man who has it all together, and then some.
Only of course he doesn’t.
Beneath the bright, breezy personality, good looks and slick businessman presentation, he is a man riven by desires so powerful that one trigger too many can render him completely captive to compulsions that can cause him to act out in ways that don’t sit easily with the man he wants to be.
Sober for five years, and active in the sort of self-help groups that provide the sort of support many people need to avoid having to “white knuckle” it (go it alone), he values his newly in-control life which is tested when fitness fanatic Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), who it turns out has issues of her own, pops up at one of the gourmand dinner nights he participates in.
With sparks flying like a romantic Fourth of July, and love, real love in the offing, and with the support of his mentor Mike (Tim Robbins) he gathers the confidence to leave his starkly sober comfort zone, and see where this relationship will take him.
That it doesn’t quite finish up where you think it might speaks volumes about Blumberg and Winston’s ability to craft a tale that defies expectations, even if it’s just a tweak here and there.
Mike (Tim Robbins), Adam’s mentor, who’s seemingly happily married to the endlessly patient Katie (Joely Richardson), is on the other hand, pretty much everything you’d expect a long standing member of the sexually sober community to be.
He is worldly-wise with pat phrases for any and all situations, a yoga practitioner (who’s zen-like composure is often challenged by a noisy, thoughtless neighbour), a man with answers for everyone even if he is manifestly unable to admit to his own failings as a father and husband.
When his former junkie son Danny (Patrick Fugit) appears out of the blue claiming to be eight months sober, Mike begins to realise that while he might be the repository of a great deal of life experience, and the wisdom you accumulate with it if you’re paying attention, he has failed to properly look apply that to the relationships with his own family.
While the resolution to his own struggles to come to terms with his manifest failures in life does threaten to teeter into the melodramatic, and is a little too predictable, Robbins brings it home with aplomb, rendering Mike as a man more vulnerable to life than he’d like to admit, and far more appealing as a result of acknowledging these chinks in his initially consummately put together armour.
Quite possibly the most delightful of the pairings that anchor Thanks For Sharing is that of Neil (Josh Gad), the initially glib and cavalier doctor who has a penchant for getting rather too close to women on public transport, and Dede (Alecia Moore aka singer Pink in a revelatory performance that confirms her as a major acting talent), a woman who arrives at the group that Neil attends broken and desperately in need of assurance that life can get better.
It is Moore’s initial confessional in the group that is the most haunting, and emotionally resonant scene in the film.
Her voice trembling, hairdresser Dede shares about a lifetime of too early sexual awakenings, inappropriate couplings, and abortions that have left her single, and alone, at 30 with only a toxic ex-boyfriend to lend her any kind of flawed solace.
It is raw, redolent with gut-wrenching pain and sadness, and leaves you wanting tho hold her close and offer any consolation you can (of the non sexual kind naturally).
Her problem, she admits, is that she can’t relate to men without forming a sexual bond with them, and it’s only when a rock bottom event causes former joker Neil (who provides many of the film’s delightfully funny moments including lessons on how not to ride a bike), who only attended the self-help groups due to a court order, to radically reassess where he is in life, that a touchingly sweet, and critically supportive, friendship of a distinctly platonic kind forms between the two.
The true joy of Thanks For Sharing is that it never overplays its hand.
Resisting the urge to get all preachy or frathouse prurient, or alienatingly overly dramatic, it charts a middle line through this most misunderstood of issues, engagingly drawing us into the lives of three people, and the friends and family in their orbit, and reminding us that life is a flawed experience, and that no matter how confidant we may be about our capacity to handle it, that we need all the help we can get.