Is an exploration of sex addiction, in all its different manifestations, the new flavor of the week in contemporary American cinema? Opening a week before Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrait of a porn obsessive, Don Jon, Stuart Blumberg’s Thanks for Sharing takes as its subject a group of sex addicts who meet at a 12-step program. More earnest than both Don Jon and Steve McQueen’s Shame (the “classic” in new the subgenre), Blumberg’s film is largely the best of the three. While avoiding the reductiveness of the Gordon-Levitt and the complete emptiness of the McQueen by spreading its inquiry across an ensemble of characters all with their different shades of struggle, it’s still undone by its rather mechanical plotting and its inability to offer the occasional frissons of its similarly-themed counterparts.
Another question: Is sex addiction a phenomenon that only befalls oversexed affluent white males? From the evidence of Shame and Thanks for Sharing one might be led to think so. Like Michael Fassbender’s wealthy Manhattanite, the three leads of Blumberg’s film, Adam (Mark Ruffalo), Mike (Tim Robbins), and Neil (Josh Gad), are all professionals, pulling down comfortably middle-class salaries or better. Their relationship statuses and particular pathologies differ (Adam is single but is irresistible to women, Mike is happily married, and Neil prefers jerking off to porn and rubbing up against girls on subways to actual intercourse), but it’s significant that all share a similar social position. (Neil may live in relative squalor, but that seems like a personal choice; he is, after all, a doctor.)
The film allays concerns that sex addiction may not after all be a real disease, by having a character give voice to this claim only to be immediately shot down. Further, the film seems wary of its own conception of a sex addicts’ group as a boys club, by introducing a female addict, Dede (Alecia Moore, a.k.a. Pink), but she simply seems the exception that proves the rule. So our trio of men help each other out, serving as a de facto three-generational family of sponsors and sponsees, as Adam attempts to start a new relationship with a woman, Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), he meets at a party, Mike deals with the reappearance of his recovering drug-addicted son, and Neil realizes it’s time to get serious about addressing his problems after getting fired from his job.
The film shrewdly expands its scope by linking sex addiction with other forms of addiction, understanding the addictive personality to be not easily compartmentalized into a single category. Thus Mike is also an alcoholic, Neil a compulsive eater, and Dede is simultaneously attending a meeting for drug addicts. Similarly, the cast is uniformly committed and even a less-than-engaging performer like Gad turns in a well-considered performance. But ultimately, a sense of the uncontrolled messiness of turbulent lives is missing. Everything is very neatly plotted, sometimes to the point of predictability. Even when the characters inevitably break down, it feels, well, inevitable, exactly the sort of overheated moment called for by the screenplay. Only a single scene, in which a would-be sexual encounter between Adam and a young woman (Emily Meade) terminates prematurely in the foreplay stages as the woman explodes in a truly frightening display of self-loathing, does Blumberg get at the dark heart of uncontrollable behaviors. That he does so by focusing on a fringe character only serves to point up the essential limitations of the worldview that seems mostly interested in tracing the pathologies of a trio of privileged men.