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Sex addiction, between laughter and tears

Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow in a scene from Stuart Blumberg’s Thanks for Sharing.
By Michael O’Sullivan
The Washington Post (*)

Dramedy Thanks for Sharing looks at messy relationships with a keen eye

Thanks for Sharing, a dramedy about sex addicts by first-time director Stuart Blumberg, walks the same fine line between laughter and tears as The Kids Are All Right, which Blumberg wrote with director Lisa Cholodenko. Like the Oscar-nominated 2010 film, which concerned the reunion between a lesbian couple and their teenage children’s sperm donor, Sharing is about all relationships. Those relationships may be messy, and the circumstances of the story’s protagonists might be extreme — even unrecognizable — but the emotional truths at the heart of the tale are universal.

It’s surprisingly wise, funny and affecting, thanks in part to a sensitive script, and in part to a strong ensemble cast.

The action centres on several members of a 12-step group. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the wise elder: a man who’s 15 years sober in the parlance of sex-addiction recovery, which in this case means no compulsive masturbation or sex outside of a committed relationship. Joely Richardson plays his saintly wife, Katie, who’s still with him despite having contracted hepatitis C (presumably as the result of his past infidelity).

Mike, the battle-scarred veteran, is quick with the profound, self-help-themed one-liner: “Feelings are like children,” he cracks. “You don’t want them driving the car, but you don’t want to stuff them in the trunk either.”

At the other extreme is Neil (Josh Gad), a young, porn-and-food-obsessed doctor who has just been fired from the hospital where he works for trying to videotape up his female supervisor’s skirt. He’s attending the 12-step programme only as a condition of a legal settlement.

“It’s not funny any more,” he laments to the group, in a telling comment that’s both a measure of his level of denial and an indication of the film’s willingness to admit that, yes, some of this is kind of hard not to snicker at, if only a little. The mostly male group, of course, titters at this remark, and then, like the film, gets serious.

Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is somewhere in the middle of those two. Five years celibate, the former serial philanderer struggles to maintain his “sobriety” in a sex-saturated culture. “It’s like trying to quit crack with the pipe attached to your body,” says Mike, his all-knowing sponsor. Adam tries to impart some of that hard-won wisdom to his own sponsee, Neil.

Around them orbits a small constellation of supporting characters, each of whom has a relationship to addiction that helps to raise, and enrich, the film’s emotional stakes. There’s Mike’s estranged son, Danny (Patrick Fugit), himself a recovering junkie; Adam’s new girlfriend, Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s just coming out of a bad relationship with an alcoholic; and Dede (played by the singer Pink), the 12-step group’s lone female member.

Although Blumberg’s script focuses on the fraught romance between Adam and Phoebe, it is, improbably, the relationship between Neil, whom most people would consider a creep, and Dede, a woman who might once have been called a nymphomaniac, that is the film’s sweetest pleasure. Their platonic friendship (yes, platonic!) is rendered with great humour, poignancy and dignity.

In fact, it is the dignity with which Blumberg treats all his characters — and the film’s difficult theme — that makes the movie. Despite some laughs, there’s no smirking at the idea that sex addiction is a real illness, and no sense of superiority toward those who suffer from it. The director, who co-wrote the screenplay with actor Matt Winston (Terry on Six Feet Under), zeroes in on what makes his characters human, not what makes them different.

His treatment of 12-step programmes is also notably unpreachy. Although the film is filled with borderline comedic references to sobriety coins, “one day at a time” and other jargony phrases of the recovery movement — “thanks for sharing” being a prime example — there’s real respect for the power of these programmes.

When Neil tells Adam that he doesn’t actually believe in a higher power, a central tenet of 12-step therapy, Adam responds that it doesn’t have to be God, just something “bigger than you.” That line, which hints at Neil’s obesity, is played for (and gets) laughs. But it’s also dead serious.

What’s bigger than Neil, or anyone else, for that matter? The film answers that question beautifully: it’s the connections we build, nurture and, if necessary, repair with the people who love us.

Production notes

Thanks for Sharing (USA, 2012). Written by Stuart Blumberg, Matt Winston. Directed by Stuart Blumberg. With Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow. Cinematography: Yaron Orbach. Editing: Anne McCabe. Running time: 112 minutes.

@mr_osullivan

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