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by Eric Hynes
July 21, 2009 1:12 AM
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Shiny Happy People Acting: Jonas Pate’s “Shrink”

Tilt down to an E.T.-eye-view of Los Angeles at dawn, the back of the Hollywood sign looming in the foreground. Cut to a dog licking a man's hand as he drunkenly sleeps outside on a reclining deck chair. Looking haggard and hairy, Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey) wakes, lights a cigarette, and keeps smoking as he showers and balks at shaving. Cut to a recording studio where Carter is still smoking, still haggard and hairy. A voice comes in from the booth: "Happiness Now, take one." If nothing else, Jonas Pate's "Shrink" wastes no time divulging its methods and level of sophistication. Irony, as conspicuous and clever as a parade float, will front for character, and characters will subsist on stale drags of cliche.

Pate cuts from Carter, "shrink to the stars" and best-selling author of self-help books, to a quick overview of the extended and soon-to-be intimately interconnected cast: a frustrated young screenwriter (Mark Webber), a troubled high schooler (Keke Palmer), a clueless movie star (Jack Huston), an asshole super-agent (Dallas Roberts), and his overworked, pregnant assistant (Pell James). Cut back to Carter who snarks, "Let the healing begin," before enduring a succession of shrill patients. Screenwriter Thomas Moffett's strategy is to gradually give depth to stereotypes, which unfortunately is like going from mud to puddles. At first you think Webber's writer is pathetic, but he's actually a real talent. You think the agent's a complete dick, but he's actually only mostly a dick. And you think that Carter is an over-aged pothead still reeling from a break-up, but he's actually a grieving widower. Though now standard practice, withholding information or motivation for a delayed reveal isn't sufficient for drama; such plotting can create a suspenseful build to conflict but can't replace it altogether. Moffett is neither the first nor the worst perpetrator of lazy Haggis-like plotting, just the most recent to demonstrate what's become of screen storytelling. So everyone's fucked up and unhappy and either better or worse off than they first seemed. Now what? Somewhere amidst the toothless satire and dope smoke there's a heart in "Shrink," a sensitivity to grief and curiosity about people and relationships, but Pate and Moffett never get around to exploring it.

Instead "Shrink" sticks to the surface, eagerly appropriating other reliable tropes, from Hollywood broadsides a la "The Player" (the agent and a steadicam tour a debauched party trailed by bon mots like, "They're lining up nuts to butts to see that"), to "Half Nelson" (druggie shrink Carter tries to counsel Palmer's Jemma, but instead they're equals in grief, a visually pleasing pairing of old and young, white and black, bitterness and hope), "Sideways" (despite his downward spiral, Carter meets a beautiful and accommodating woman -- Saffron Burrows, truly luminous and hopefully well compensated -- with whom to start over), and of course "American Beauty." By now it's hard to imagine Spacey ever emerging from that film's unfortunate shadow, and after a decade of misbegotten ego-strokes ("Pay It Forward") cringe-worthy cameos ("21") and passion projects ("Beyond the Sea"), here he embraces the typecasting, playing to rather than above the material. Though too often relying on arch phrasing and a squint-eyed, stiff-necked condescension, he's always more believable as a schemer than as an everyman. He's got a surprisingly agile, vaguely volatile physical presence that gets wasted on sincerity, and in both "Shrink" and "American Beauty" warps into camp. Not yet even 50, Spacey seems doomed to play against his strengths.

For a film about fractured lives and painful recoveries, "Shrink" has an oddly brisk tempo and slick visual presentation. Time and again Pate employs music-vid montages to glide things forward, with DP Lukas Ettlin going slo-mo and burnishing everyone in late-day magic, and composers Brian Rietzell and Ken Andrews's moody rock score inspiring a fuzzy fellow feeling. Implausible events and forced idiosyncrasies abound but never slow us down: white-collar Carter becomes best buds with his deadbeat dealer; a screenplay is written, pitched, discarded, lost, found on a city street by its secret subject, and green-lit in a few movie minutes; Robin Williams, sex addict, brags that, "In my day I balled a lot of chicks" and that a girl, "makes me harder than Chinese algebra"; and a single-screen movie house subsists on home rental favorites like "Fargo" and "The Graduate". When Carter finally hits bottom - an event that no film that cares for its characters or about grief or addiction would take lightly -- it's played for a snazzy face-plant spectacle. On a Charlie Rose-like talk show hosted by Gore Vidal, a baked and boozy Carter tells the TV audience that he's a fraud, and not to buy his bestselling book. "It's all bullshit and then you die," he says, to which Vidal wickedly retorts, "We knew that going in." Alas, the same could be said for "Shrink."

[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]

[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

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