The Sessions


The Sessions

Just a little pillow talk.

(2012) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H. Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin, Rhea Perlman, W. Earl Brown, Robin Weigart, Blake Lindsley, Rusty Schwimmer, Ming Lo, Jennifer Kumiyama. Directed by Ben Lewin

 

We take things for granted. Walking, seeing, hearing, touching…our senses are a gift that not all of us get to utilize. So too is sex. We tend to take it for granted, especially those of us who have partners who are pretty much willing whenever and wherever, that not everyone gets to have sex. For some it’s lack of that willing partner. For others, there are physical impediments.

Mark O’Brien (Hawkes) is a journalist and poet living in Berkeley. It is 1988 and he is 36 years old. Having dismissed one attendant (Schwimmer) for another named Amanda (Marks) whom he has fallen deeply in love with, he has been afflicted with polio since he was six and must confine himself in an iron lung in order to breathe. He is able to exit his confinement for three hours or so at a time but no more. For that reason, having sex has been problematic. When he confesses his love to Amanda, she bolts; he is sure it’s because he’s a virgin.

He is not strictly paralyzed; he has feeling throughout his body and while he is able to move his limbs somewhat he doesn’t have much control; only his head seems to work properly. His night attendant Rod (Brown) and his new day attendant Vera (Bloodgood) are sometimes confronted with Mark’s sexuality; while being bathed he often gets an erection and occasionally ejaculates, much to his consternation.

After writing an article for a local magazine on the subject of sex and the disabled, Mark begins to feel like he was an amateur writing on a subject he didn’t know anything about. Consulting with his parish priest, Father Brendan (Macy) – Mark was raised and continues to be a devout Catholic, attending confession regularly and Mass whenever he can – Mark decides that he needs to experience sex. For one thing, he knows his time on this Earth is limited and he doesn’t want to die a virgin.

Father Brendan refers him to a therapist (Lindsley) who in turn refers him to a sex surrogate – Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Hunt). Mark is given six sessions with which to achieve the intimacy he’s longing to achieve.

Mark is quite nervous at first and confuses Cheryl a little bit with a prostitute (with which she takes great pains to explain the difference). He also requires a great deal of patience as he is prone to…ummm, arrive early. Despite admonitions to the contrary, he begins to develop an emotional bond with his surrogate. And Cheryl, against all odds, begins to feel something for him.

This is based on a true story, chronicled by the real Mark O’Brien in an essay entitled “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” which was published in a magazine called The Sun. O’Brien, who would pass away in 1999, was a talented writer who was also the subject of a 1996 documentary Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien which would win an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.

There might be some Oscar consideration for this one as well. Hawkes gives a remarkable performance as O’Brien, capturing the wheezing vocal quality of someone who has respiratory issues as well as the twisted posture that O’Brien possessed. He also captures all of O’Brien’s doubts, his whimsical sense of humor, his sweetness, his passion and his gift for gab. It’s a complex and layered performance and given Hawkes’ recent string of sensational performances, helps establish him as one of the best actors in the world, bar none.

But as brave as Hawkes’ performance is, Hunt’s is braver. She spends a good deal of the movie fully naked. She makes little or no attempt to hide her 49 years; she is comfortable in her own skin and to show her body this way is probably more than most Oscar winners would agree to (and she is a member of that prestigious club). Cheryl is on one hand the competent professional, on the other a woman whose marriage isn’t what she thought it would be and whose own spirituality is very much in flux; she is converting to Judaism on the request of her husband but like Mark was raised Catholic in Massachusetts.

Macy’s Father Brendan reminds me of some of the Jesuit priests I knew at Loyola; certainly well aware of their duties to the Church but equally aware of the needs of men (and women) and who owed more allegiance to common sense than to dogma. He’s the kind of priest you would feel comfortable opening up to in the confessional and out, one whose advice you would consider seriously and one who you wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with after the game. Like I said, a Jesuit in spirit if not in reality.

This is a movie that might sound on the surface that it is about sex (and yes there is some graphic nudity although nothing that I would consider pornographic) but it really isn’t. It’s about kindness. It’s about triumphing over adversity. It’s about the resilience of the human spirit. And it’s about spirituality. Sex is just a component of this multi-layered film. Sure there are some who might be offended by the rather frank discussions of sex, arousal and intercourse. In some ways this is a 95 minute sex education film but it isn’t a how-to. What it really is about is how beautiful life is and that anything is possible. This is a movie that genuinely uplifts without having to resort to emotional manipulation and if you aren’t moved by it, you may need to check your pulse.

REASONS TO GO: Amazing performances from Hawkes and Hunt. Deeply affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Very matter-of-fact and somewhat clinical at times about sex; those who are offended about such things might be troubled by the movie.

FAMILY VALUES:  The movie contains a lot of frank representations of sex, both verbally and physically. There is a good deal of nudity as well as some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hawkes used a foam ball laid on his spine to get the curvature of his body correct. The process was painful but Hawkes said in an interview that compared to what similarly disabled people go through it was bearable and worth enduring to get the part right.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are extremely positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything

IRON LUNG LOVERS: The production designers were loaned an old iron lung for the filming. The device was era specific.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: I Am Legend

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She’s Out of My League


She's Out of My League

Beauty and the Geek.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (DreamWorks) Jay Baruchel, Alice Eve, T.J. Miller, Nate Torrence, Krysten Ritter, Lindsay Sloane, Mike Vogel, Kyle Bornheimer, Jessica St. Clair, Debra Jo Rupp, Adam LaFevre, Kim Shaw. Directed by Jim Field Smith

There are some couples who are perfectly suited for one another. Everything just seems to mesh. You just take one look at them and you know they were meant to be together. Then there are other couples that you wonder what the hell they’re doing together at all.

Kirk (Baruchel) works for the TSA at the Pittsburgh airport. An awkward, gangly sort but a sweet guy at his core, he has just gotten over a breakup with Marnie (Sloane), a bitchy sort who inexplicably has charmed Kirk’s parents and is essentially part of the family now, including her new boyfriend. They’re getting ready to take a family trip to Branson, Missouri – complete with matching t-shirts. Henpecked Kirk is the object of scorn even in his own family.

Then who should walk through his security check station but Molly (Eve), a super-hot party planner who was once a lawyer. When she forgets her iPhone, Kirk offers to return it to her when she returns to Pittsburgh. When he does, the two hit it off and she invites him to one of her parties. Before long, his sweet nature wins her over, much to the chagrin of his friends as well as hers.

His friends are basically slackers with jobs including Stainer (Miller), Jack (Vogel) and Devon (Torrence). They opine that Kirk is basically a five – at best – and Molly is a ten – a hard ten. And, as we all know, you can never move more than two places in either direction. This whole relationship is an aberration, against the laws of nature.

Naturally Kirk’s own insecurities begin to take root. He’s painfully aware of how much better looking Molly is than he is and is convinced that Molly is pity-dating him. What’s surprising is that Molly has insecurities of her own and between the two of them what could be a good thing could rapidly become a nightmare.

As the recent crop of romantic comedies go, this is better written than most. However, there are places where you feel like Smith, a member of the British sketch troupe The Dutch Elm Conservatoire and making his feature film directing debut here, is going for a Judd Apatow-like feel to the film but without the bite Apatow brings to his projects. Unfortunately, the script is too sweet at its heart to really do that effectively.

The source of the sweetness is primarily Baruchel. He has a nasal, somewhat pedantic delivery of lines that I’ve found annoying in other movies but it works here. His character is nerdy but sweet-natured at the core, which is the kind of role he seems to do best in having played it in several other movies.

Alice Eve is suitably gorgeous here, and she plays her role with a little more smarts than you might think it called for. Other movies would have just asked for interchangeable cleavage which is how some reviewers seemed to think this one was. Nah ah, ink stain breath; this is a part that required depth and Eve provided it. End of story.

There are elements of romantic comedy 101 here, however plus the Apatow wannabe syndrome. Those serve to torpedo the better elements of the movie which, in places, are charming and sweet. Some of the humor – such as a premature ejaculation bit and a very strange bit on male genital grooming – almost seemed like they came out of other movies.

The relationship between Kirk and Molly is what works best about the movie. These are two seemingly disparate people who get together for all the right reasons – something that is less common in reality than you might think. When the movie concentrates on that relationship, it is at its best. When the movie delves into comic reasons to break them apart, well, not so good.

WHY RENT THIS: Alice Eve is actually pretty good and totally hot. The movie is sweet in places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Baruchel’s sad sack character is too much like other characters he’s played. Plot seems too much like an Apatow movie, only without Judd Apatow.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of bad language and some sexual content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During a scene when Kirk’s friends are teasing him about a premature ejaculation, Jack’s hamburger is seen to have French Fries in the bun. This is how they are served at Primanti Brothers, a Pittsburgh institution. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a faux talk show starring Torrence as a date advice host.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $48.8M on a $20M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Tooth Fairy