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 cliché.
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.