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Review: ‘Shame’

Michael Fassbender stars as a sex addict in

Credit: Fox Searchlight

Above: Michael Fassbender stars as a sex addict in "Shame."

"Shame" (opened December 9 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas) is not to be confused with either Ingmar Bergman's introspective 1960s film or the underappreciated 1980s genre film from Australia, all of which share the same name.

This latest "Shame" reunites actor Michael Fassbender with British director Steve McQueen (and don't get him confused with the late Hollywood actor). The two worked on "Hunger" in 2008. That film showcased Fassbender and drew on the real story of Irish Republican Bobby Sands and his prison hunger strike. For "Shame," the two turn to a tale of a man's sexual addiction.

If you have seen the review quotes calling Fassbender's performance "searing," "fearless," and "brave," know that this is shorthand for critics who really want to say "OMG he's naked most of the time!" There is a tendency to equate physical nakedness with emotional nakedness and honesty, and then upgrade the performance to those superlatives of "fearless" and "brave" when in fact it is merely a good performance without clothes. Fassbender is good and even impressive in "Shame" but it's a performance limited by a superficial script.

Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, an attractive thirtysomething New York City Madison Avenue type who makes a good living, has a nice apartment, but just can't get enough sex. It's an obsession and it threatens to disrupt his comfortable life. Up till now he seems to have been able to manage his addiction well enough to not create problems at work. But when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unexpectedly, it complicates his routine.

"Shame" is typical of art house soft core porn, which means it's sex and nudity with a lot of pretension... and in this case throw in a hefty portion of guilt. "Shame" plays like "Requiem for a Dream" mixed with "9 Songs." So Fassbender's character engages in a lot of sexual activity -- none of it extremely explicit despite the NC-17 rating -- but he doesn't derive a whole lot of pleasure from it because he feels that what he's doing is wrong. And that's the big difference between art house porn and porn -- porn films allow people to engage in sex just for fun and with no consequences, in art house porn you usually have to suffer for it.

Fassbender and McQueen work hard to make the film look sleek and visually sexy. The hotels, offices, and rooms have a sterile high end look, all the women (even the hookers) are gorgeous, and Fassbender (even when he's meant to be at his lowest) is still attractive. But we get no real insight into Sullivan's character, into what makes him tick or what fuels his addiction. He seems emotionally cut off, can't form long-term relationships, and makes bad choices but he's far from evil. He is aware of how he is supposed to connect with people such as his sister. He's aware of the moral structure of the society he lives in and that he's not in line with it but this dissonance is not really addressed. The film seems to be passing moral judgment or at the very least not questioning a moral judgment levied by society.

Photo caption:

Photo credit: Fox Searchlight

Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender star as brother and sister in "Shame."

After all he's a single adult male having consensual sex with adult men and women as well as engaging in online porn -- it's not like he's forcing people to have sex with him or cheating on a spouse. His behavior is destructive because the society he lives in makes him feel "shame" for his behavior. But Fassbender, McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan never consider whether this shame is appropriate or if Sullivan's downward spiral is because he has a real psychological problem or is just made to feel that he does because of America's views on sexual behavior. Sullivan's boss David (James Badge Dale) is a genuinely despicable man -- a husband who cheats on his wife and does so with Sullivan's emotionally fragile sister. So what we are left with is a film that serves up a character who repeatedly engages in the same behavior and then agonizes about it. This results in eventual boredom even with the appealing Fassbender frequently naked (I can't believe I just said that).

"Shame" (rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content) looks slick and Fassbender is always compelling but pretension and numbing repetition make it a mixed success at best. For a much more engaging and in some ways more complicated (because it challenges social conventions) portrait of a sex addict, I much prefer the cable series "Californication" with David Duchovny.

Companion viewing: "Requiem for a Dream," "9 Songs," "Californication" (cable series)

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