First off, let me just say I don't feel sorry for any dude whose dick I can see from the back. That's my first strike against Steve McQueen's latest film, Shame. In the opening minutes, we see Michael Fassbender's lead character get out of bed completely naked, walk around his swank yet minimalist New York apartment, and head to the bathroom for that all-important morning whizz. While we only get Fassbender from the backside, we do see his member exerting a perfect stream between his legs.
Yes, it is silly to lose sympathy for a character just because we get to see his flaccid Fassbender flapping around in the breeze. But as the film progresses, you may find yourself not feeling all that bad for Fassbender's protagonist, even when the movie expects you to pity him as his genitals steer his downfall. The movie stages elaborate, painstakingly lighted displays of good-looking people coupling, to deliberately monotonous and joyless effect: It's like an installation at the Museum of Bad Sex.
Fassbender is Brandon, a charismatic yuppie who also happens to be a raving sex addict. I'm not exaggerating when I say raving: pleasuring himself virtually on an hourly basis (yes, even at work); watching Internet porn as well as stashing stroke mags around his apartment (hey, the guy's a purist!); practically keeping hookers on speed-dial.
While his extreme sexual activities don't appear to affect his work and social life, his X-rated (or in this case, NC-17) daily routine gets sidetracked when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and crashes at his place. As she's a troubled gal with her own dysfunctional hangups, Brandon would rather have nothing to do with her, especially when she complicates his life by having a one-night stand with his boss (James Badge Dale). But there are other reasons he doesn't want his needy sis around.
As Brandon tries to hump away his misery, director McQueen (who directed Fassbender in his debut docudrama Hunger) and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) provide only the hoariest of dimestore analysis and easy rationales to explain what makes a sex addict tick. Sissy's presence reminds Brandon of the traumatic past (quietly hinted at throughout the entire movie) that he's been trying to figuratively and literally ejaculate out of his system. But while he may be drowning in a sea of autoerotic excess, he also knows how to get laid whenever he wants. As Fassbender suavely plays him, he's the sort of playa who can get a girl hot and bothered with just his gaze (which he lays on a woman subway rider in the movie).
Make no mistake, though: McQueen and Morgan want you to know this guy is having no fun. Brandon can effortlessly seduce women, but he can't connect with them. He starts an affectionate fling with a black co-worker (Nicole Beharie), only to go limp when he realizes he can't get off with someone he actually likes. And while Manhattan has never given off a more alluring nighttime gleam than it does here (sorry, Woody!), McQueen presents the town pretty much the way he depicts sex: visually stimulating but unhealthy. Nowhere is that more affecting than in the much-discussed scene where Brandon goes to a nightclub and catches Sissy performing "New York, New York" — not as the Sinatra-esque salute we all know and love, but as an aching lament for a black hole where all that glitters ain't gold. The rendition brings Sissy and Brandon both to tears — a sober reminder that this alleged city of dreams has failed to relieve them of the nightmare that has been their lives.
For every moment this poignant and piercing, however, there are others too overwrought to forgive. When Brandon eventually hits rock bottom and goes on that all-important last-reel bender, McQueen has him engaging in such so-called devastating debauchery as looking for a quick fix at a gay bar. He eventually ends up in someone's apartment, taking part in an intense but unsatisfying three-way. Fassbender scrunches his face like a man who slammed his pinkie in a car door, lest you think Brandon's actually enjoying that orgasm.
Moments like this ring hollow, revealing a view of sex addiction that's more half-assed than penetrating. You don't walk away from Shame thinking you've seen a scalding study of a man's crippling pathological descent into self-destructive hell (and for that, may I suggest Paul Schrader's underrated 2002 Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus?). Instead, as my friend Jason Shawhan put it, you leave feeling you've seen the most daring movie of 1967. The real shame about Shame is that it isn't as shameless as it thinks it is.
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