WARNING: this review may feature some saucy language. Proceed with a sailor’s tolerance.
If you’re anything like me, ‘Shame’ will be the first NC-17 movie you ever see in theaters. And, aware of this, you’re going to head into your showing with a checklist of totally high school expectations: Fassbender peen? Check. Mulligan carpeting? Threesomes, alley romps, and furious self-administration? You want it, ‘Shame”s got it; this is sexy Christmas come early, especially for people who really don’t care to see ‘The Muppets’. But for all its titillation, ‘Shame’ is about as far from sexy as a movie can be. Once the novelty of the lead actor’s (let’s just SAY it) sizable penis wears off, what you’re left with is maybe the true successor to ‘Precious’ — or, in so many words, a movie that’s by design the opposite of fun. But also excellent?
For the sake of consistency, let’s do the plot thing: Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful consultant type hiding the SHAME of his addiction to all things sex. In weirdo pornography, in uncomfortable dates with call girls — he lives for release, and practically nothing else. His sister (Carrie Mulligan) shows up, damaged in her own way. She sleeps with his boss. They fight. No one is happy! Brandon sinks deeper and deeper into an abyss of depravity before the movie ends and your children are safe asleep at home, none the wiser that their parents just saw a movie they will be forbidden from seeing until college.
While Shame could have easily, EASILY gone down the “let’s make everyone and everything as sad as humanly f*cking possible” road, it’s actually not quite as extreme or downbeat as the rating would have you believe. YES, Brandon makes his way through a red-rimmed gay club to get his dee essed and returns home to find his sister’s suicide attempt having repainted his bathroom. It’s dark! The movie’s about a SEX ADDICT. But packed in there are some oddly lively scenes that help break the tension and — for real — might even be funny.
At one point in the film, Brandon tries to make a go of a perfectly normal date with a co-worker. They stumble through awkward small talk; their waiter flubs the specials menu. Suddenly you’re not watching the saddest movie ever, but a Nora Ephron comedy where Tom Hanks just happens to be a serial masturbator. In fact, looking at all the miserable scenes to follow through the lens of an aborted romantic comedy helps them go down that much smoother. Fingering some random girl in a dimly-lit bar again? When will the guy learn!?
The fact that he really doesn’t learn anything can be taken as “how European!” proof of Shame‘s honest excellence, or an indicator that perhaps this film didn’t need to be feature-length. Like we covered above, there’s not much to it: Fassbender’s a sex addict, his sister is an emotionally-damaged need-monster, and we watch them spiral out of control but with an understanding that this has probably happened many times before. It’s a character sketch – a quick “here’s this guy” peek into a life none of us (should ever) want. There’s NOT THAT MUCH ELSE TO ABSORB.
But the acting is so fantastic, and the character exploration so rich, that “nothing happens” is a pointless criticism to level. Most crucial to the film’s power here is the fact that neither the script nor Fassbender ever glamorizes Brandon’s powers of seduction. His brain boning of a woman on the subway early on is maybe the sexiest things get — everything after that seems slimier and sadder, spiraling until the guy at movie’s end is just…haggard. Looking to yell “Fassbender’s a CHAMP, yo!”? Do it before the guy tries to f*ck an elevator*.
ALL JOSHING ASIDE, it’s still an impossibly sad movie that will probably give you an anti-boner and make you think twice about your subscription to Adult Friend Finder. Go see it!