Any movie Stuart Blumberg wrote to follow on from his excellent screenplay The Kids are All Right has to be worth a look. Kids is a hard act to follow. Filmed in 3 weeks on a shoestring budget of $4 million, it won the 2010 Golden Globe Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress (Annette Bening), was nominated for four academy awards and, by the end of 2010, that $4 million investment recouped more than $34 million at the box office.
Blumberg’s stories are concerned with engaging and heartfelt issues. This is why he pulls big name actors eager to play something worth their chops, regardless of budget. Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo starred in Kids, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins and Ruffalo again came on board for Thanks for Sharing, Blumberg’s new screenplay, co-written by Matt Winston and a directorial debut for Blumberg himself.
But where Kids works , Thanks has a harder task to perform, and it doesn’t quite make it. Kids took us into the world of a family of two gay parents and two teenage children whose lives are challenged by an outsider, the childrens’ sperm donor father. The point is made that true family in any form is about commitment, not a biological obligation, but about choosing to show up for each other. The ‘family’ in Thanks For Sharing is a group of sex addicts, three men in particular, who are bonded in a mentor/mentee triangle over years of being there for each other, through triumphs and setbacks. In their interweaving stories, Blumberg makes his point that true connection isn’t won quickly or easily, it has to be earned with honesty and commitment. Using the structure of the 12 step recovery program gives a comic entry to the characters and the phrase ‘Thanks for sharing’ refers to the sharing that occurs in group therapy. It also references how we share ourselves in relationships and the demands for honesty and trust if relationships are to mean anything.
The device of open disclosure and group confessional becomes a short hand introduction to the men’s conflicts and dilemmas. The premise is that recovery depends on self-control, abstinence and scrupulous honesty. These are the tools the men use to manage their sex addiction day by day, year by year. Ruffalo (Collateral, The Avengers, You Can Count on Me) plays the role of the main protagonist, Adam. Five years ‘clean’, Adam’s is a monk-like existence, characterised by impeccable restraint. He can’t allow a TV in his hotel room, he doesn’t ride the subway. Ruffalo is the first to speak in the group, the cleanest, so his fall becomes the most dramatic and when he falls we go with him. We are introduced to him as he prays by his bed in an immaculate apartment, in sharp contrast to the compulsive behaviour that takes him over later in the story.
Throughout the story, Blumberg’s set design is used to underline various characters’ states of addiction or control. He also illustrates how our culture is steeped in sexual imagery, on the streets, subway, internet and TV, as well as the ready availability of porn and prostitutes. Josh Gad (The Book of Mormon) plays Neil, Adam’s mentee. He is the character who displays the most addictive and dysfunctional behaviour. He isn’t in therapy by choice, he’s on probation, having lost his job as a medical intern for sexually inappropriate behaviour. Alone in his apartment he gives in to compulsive masturbation and chronic overeating. The father figure of the group and Adam’s mentor is Mike, played by Tim Robbins (Mystic River, Shawshank Redemption). Mike has had the longest battle with sex and alcohol addictions, and he is the most stalwart and committed to supporting other recovering addicts. His son Sam is a drug addict, the script linking the son’s addictive behaviour to the father’s dysfunction.
The trouble is the characters, though well fleshed out by the actors, come across as ‘types’ or case studies. You don’t feel as though they earn their stories like the family in The Kids are All Right, rather they come across as facets of the addiction spectrum rather than characters in their own right. There are quick catharsis moments, like Neil burning his porn collection. There is a clunky, Oedipal scene with Mike’s son hitting out at both his parents, racing off into the night to end up in the hospital bed where he makes peace with mom and dad. Robbins is always a terrific presence on screen but the script leads him to a predictable collapse when he tells his son he’s sorry. His character is asked to carry a lot, perhaps all the absent fathers whose addictions may lead to dysfunction in their children.
A scene with a young woman who Adam picks up after he falls off the wagon is also predictable. Keen to get his fix, Adam doesn’t see the warning signs as the girl turns into an hysteric, acting out her own ‘abusive daddy’ issues before overdosing. Of course, the very nature of addiction is automatic and predictable but scenes like these make it especially challenging for actors to appear as though they are operating from individual responses. Too often, they seem to exist to illustrate a text book point about addiction rather than the addiction arising as a by-product of the characters’ journey.
Blumberg is weaving three stories and their sub plots so perhaps there is simply not enough time to build the characters as individuals, so their addictions arise from a strongly personal context. For example we have a brief scene where Neil’s mother is invasive in the way she touches him, asking us to infer this is where his own lack of boundaries and control stems from. Having said this, the actors do their best with strong committed performances, in particular Ruffalo, whose stock in trade is accessible, believable characters.
Blumberg is always to be commended for the strength of his female characters. Joely Richardson as Mike’s wife is the stand out. Perhaps because she isn’t an addict, her character is free to develop and be defined beyond the addiction model. Even when she’s acting and speaking of being the co-dependent (classic partner to an addict, in 12 step parlance) she is believable as a character. Alecia Moore, more commonly known as Pink, pulls off a surprisingly moving disclosure as a new member of the addiction program. Beyond that she seems token as the only female addict and the scene where she takes Neil to a free-form dance night seems gratuitous. Gwyneth Paltrow takes on the main female role of Phoebe, the woman who becomes Adam’s girlfriend. Perfect on the surface, Phoebe is a cancer survivor and health freak with her own control addictions. Again, the character arc becomes a text book example in Addiction 101.
In the production notes producer William Migliore says Blumberg’s belief in interdependence underpins his work as a filmmaker and was the reason they let him take on the directorial role for the first time. ‘We bet on that part of him that would allow for collaboration and for bringing out the best in everyone in his team.’ Blumberg emphasises this when he states, ‘This is a story about how to get through this struggle is with other people.’
The ensemble of stories is laid out clearly, each story arc paced well and knits with the others but overall feels too much morality play rather than characters’ story. Thanks For Sharing fails to lift off under the weight of its over-prescribed themes. One should give credit to Blumberg for even attempting this commentary on modern society. He is making a sincere effort to look at a culture that struggles to have open and honest relationships.
Another issue that hangs over the film is that the vote is still out as to whether sex addiction is a disease or just an excuse for being irresponsible. Famous sex addicts like Michael Douglas and David Duchovny were criticised in the popular media for elevating selfish behaviour into a disease so that they may not be held entirely responsible for their behaviour. It’s a very modern sociological debate, we’re all addicts, we all have our ‘stuff.’
In the end, the core theme of Thanks For Sharing is the bond between the three men. The women are tests, indicators as to how the men are doing. It’s a curiously puritanical perspective. To underline the point, the final sequence of the three main characters walking through the city carries the soundtrack of ‘Comrades in arms’. The war isn’t Vietnam or Afghanistan but with addiction on the streets of a modern city.