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Ben Lewin’s The Sessions is a very rare beast – an American film that por­trays human sexu­al­ity with hon­esty, sens­it­iv­ity and no hint of pruri­ence. (Actually, writer-director Lewin is a Polish emigré who grew up in Australia and – after a brief career as a bar­ris­ter – went to England in 1971 to make tele­vi­sion, so maybe it isn’t all that American.)

Poet Mark O’Brien was crippled with polio as a child and forced to spend more than 20 hours a day in an iron lung, prac­tising his craft with a pen­cil held between his teeth, rely­ing on care­givers for – almost – every import­ant bod­ily func­tion. Although he spent his life hori­zont­al he wasn’t para­lysed and he could still feel everything that was done to his body – a fact that a pretty nurse giv­ing him his daily wash could prob­ably testi­fy to… As a red-blooded American male in his 30s, his head could get turned by a shapely fig­ure even though his inex­per­i­ence and dis­ab­il­ity meant he was totally lack­ing in romantic confidence.

To com­plic­ate mat­ters still fur­ther, his Catholic faith also provided him with the tra­di­tion­al guilt com­plex, although it did intro­duce him to a loc­al priest (William H. Macy) who could min­is­ter to his increas­ingly tor­tured soul. A coun­sel­lor intro­duces Mark to the idea of a sex sur­rog­ate – a ther­ap­ist spe­cial­ising in help­ing cli­ents get over sexu­al prob­lems and hangups. He wants to lose his vir­gin­ity before he dies but the church won’t sanc­tion sex out­side wed­lock. What’s a guy to do?

After a moment’s con­sid­er­a­tion, kindly Father Brendan pre­dicts that God would prob­ably give Mark a free pass in this case, not real­ising that this bless­ing means that he’s going to get a blow by blow (so to speak) account of the thera­peut­ic pro­cess. The phys­ic­al min­is­tra­tions are provided by Helen Hunt’s Cheryl, a registered sex ther­ap­ist and a soul so sens­it­ive to Mark’s situ­ation that frankly every man should be lucky enough to have such a coach.

Mark is played by char­ac­ter act­or John Hawkes – often ter­ri­fy­ingly intense in films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Winter’s Bone and Higher Ground but here warm, witty and almost unre­cog­nis­able as in all but one shot of the film he’s hori­zont­al. The Sessions is the best film about ther­apy since Good Will Hunting and one of the best films about any­thing this year.

Arriving on a wave of Oscar hype (and a pos­sibly over-stated post-Margin Call hun­ger for dra­mas about the fin­an­cial crisis), Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage gives Richard Gere a rare juicy role as a suc­cess­ful Manhattan fund man­ager on the verge of cash­ing out. He’s selling his busi­ness to one of the big banks and the pay­day will be extraordin­ary – if they don’t find the $412 mil­lion hole in the accounts he is cov­er­ing up and if the cop invest­ig­at­ing an upstate car acci­dent can’t pin him to the scene of the crime and the dead woman in the car.

It’s a good setup but the exe­cu­tion is laboured. Jarecki’s dia­logue is life­less and clichéd and the char­ac­ter motiv­a­tions are tele­graphed. An unsym­path­et­ic prot­ag­on­ist doesn’t always mean death to a film (only most of the time) but Gere’s Robert Miller behaves awfully through­out, though not in a deli­cious or even enter­tain­ing way. A strong sup­port­ing cast (Susan Sarandon, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, Stuart Margolin) is giv­en very little to work with script-wise and little appar­ent dir­ec­tion either.

Despite the block­buster use of 3D (The Avengers, Spider-Man and the forth­com­ing Hobbit) it often seems as if the tech­no­logy is still best-suited to jazz­ing up pulpy B pic­tures like Bait. After all, one of the most enter­tain­ing 3D flicks I’ve seen was Piranha 3D and that had almost no redeem­ing fea­tures at all. Bait has a neat con­ceit: a tsunami des­troys most of an Australian coastal town leav­ing a few sur­viv­ors trapped in a flooded super­mar­ket. While they are work­ing on get­ting out one of them sees a shad­ow in the water and, yes, the incom­ing tide has brought with it a great white shark.

There are a few jumps to be had – and limbs to float around in front of you – but the deliv­ery doesn’t quite live up to the prom­ise. The young­er ones in the all-Australian cast look like they have been chosen on looks rather than tal­ent and the edit­ing lacks propul­sion. Still, I did feel tiny but meas­ur­able increases in heart rate and adren­aline levels which is more than can be said for our final entry this week.

On arrival at the always friendly Empire Cinema in Island Bay on Saturday for Alex Cross, when offered a free cup of cof­fee I replied “that’s worth an extra half star”. So, as a man of my word – not to men­tion someone who doesn’t nor­mally deal in star rat­ings – I am obliged to give Alex Cross half a star. But if you need a second opin­ion, I can report that as the clos­ing cred­its rolled my com­pan­ion leaned over and said “that was the worst. film. ever.”

Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 7 November, 2012.


  • dfmamea says:

    @The Sessions: i should go and see this. but my Methodist upbring­ing is mak­ing me feel bad about the desire to see such a film.

    @Alex Cross: your short­er reviews always make me flash on “The quick­est way to a man’s heart is through the rib cage.” thank you.