Monday, 16 January 2012

Steve McQueen's Sex-Addict Movie Shame

I saw the much-hyped Steve McQueen movie Shame Sunday afternoon. Here's what one of the characters would say to describe their crazy behaviour...

"I was so out of control, I fucked my brother's boss three hours after meeting him in this nightclub where I had a gig. I shagged my brother's boss in my brother's bed. In his flat, where I was crashing. My brother had to go our for a run while I was shagging his boss in his bed."

That's the kind of story that has people in 12-Step rooms agreeing that you had crossed the line from Normal to Crazy. Catch is, it's what Carey Mulligan's character does. Michael Fassbender's character is a single man. So he can't do stuff like whore away his daughter's college education, or disgust his wife so much she divorces him, or cause his son to be jeered at in school, or lose his job because he was getting some lunchtime nookie when he should have been at a client meeting. That's what out-of-control addicts do. His character is single and keeps his job despite the IT department finding a ton of porn on his work computer (huh? not these days). He's just a fucked-up man who can't mix friendship and sex, and has the money to buy hookers - though in the middling-level job he has, those are pretty fancy-looking hookers he's getting for the money. He's the sex equivalent of a heavy drinker who behaves badly when drunk - that doesn't make you an alcoholic, it just makes you an asshole who needs to cut back. And that's what his character is. It's his sister who goes in for self-harm and attempted suicide - and self-harm is regarded by we conventional alcoholics as almost as incomprehensible as anorexia. It's his sister who's the utter mess.

Which is not the movie I was sold by the hype. It has good photography and sets, excellent performances, but of a script full of cliches and almost zero insight into sex addiction, or indeed any kind of addiction. Fassbender's character gets full of remorse, so he goes to a downscale bar and gets the crap kicked out of him by a rightly pissed-off boyfriend. After which he gets oral sex from a gay man in one of those visions-of-hell that have never actually existed. Ummm, hello? Can you spell "homophobic"? There are the obligatory masturbation-in-the-shower sequences that are shorthands for "desperate and sad", in the same way as the beautifully-photographed run is supposed to be a literal metaphor for the way he runs from problems and confrontation (in this case, that he should have stopped his boss coming into the flat with his sister). I didn't get the feeling that the writers understood anything about sex addiction, but that they did think that single men were pretty awful. Compare and contrast with Michael Keaton's portrayal of a minor-asshole cokehead in Clean and Sober - Shame is not of that calibre of insight at all.

I would have shown a guy running out of money, lying to a likeable girlfriend (the Nicole Beharie character will do just fine), in trouble at work because he was dumb enough to download porn to his work computer on a business trip, missing a visit to the hospital to see his father because he got caught in a four-hour Internet porn session, and then getting beaten up by a returning boyfriend when he was cheating with a random pick-up (called, say, Sarah). He goes for treatment, thereby saving his job, but not his girlfriend, who leaves and in a later scene with a friend explains that she's not so sure she can trust her judgement anymore as he didn't get what was wrong with the guy until it was too late. Sarah gets thrown out by the boyfriend, with a black eye, the scene done in such a way that we think he has a point, even if he shouldn't have hit her. The guy comes out of treatment and returns to work, we can reprise the neat scene on the train with Lucy Walter's character but this time have him look away and see the Lucy Walter's character's disappointment. He runs across Sarah, who's sporting a bruise (brusies take a long time to go away) and gives him a smack we may well feel he deserves. Leave the man standing on a Manhatten street, confused and just starting to talk to his SAA sponsor. You can have all the hot hookers you like in the first act.

I saw two films that day. Before Shame, I saw Tales of a Life. Now that's a good movie.

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