Thursday, January 28, 2010

Shrink: A Movie Review

by Drew Martin

I saw the movie Shrink last night and I actually watched it to the end because there were a lot of things I found interesting that were intended and, more interestingly, unintended. Shrink stars Kevin Spacey, who is good for the part of Henry Carter, a broken and doped psychiatrist. There is nothing new in the film and the message and meaning of it wasn't worth the nominal library rental fee but it is a film I will think about for a while. For one thing, I like when a film's title works perfectly, as does Shrink.

Shrink, refers to Carter as psychiatrist, a profession that is presented here as a family trade and is the mode in which all relationships are managed throughout the film. The title is great for many other reasons...for starters all the events are shrunk into Hollywood/Los Angeles. A decadent/bacchanalian party teeters on the Pacific bluffs and the only other boundary is the HOLLYWOOD sign which serves as a border and the of edge of the limits of the characters. Shrink can also refer to the emasculating and neutering of several of the characters. Carter shrinks away from relationships at first and a patient Jack Holden, played by Robin Williams, is an aging Casanova who wants his problem to be sex addiction, because that would permit his longed for sexcapades, which he feels denied in marriage. This believed problem, like all the other problems of the characters, whether it is smoking marijuana, abusing liquor or wallowing in grief are really veneers for a basic loss of self respect.

With this thinking, the film has a lot of potential. All of the characters, including the psychiatrists, are really just patients being presented to us to observe...but I am afraid this might be loss on most viewers because of other, more obvious presentations. Another thing I liked about this film was the use of space. The glassy houses and offices do not offer us true interiors, which is really a comment about the characters, who are all quite shallow. It is only in the end that Carter can enter his cave-like master bedroom, which he once shared with a wife who committed suicide. That space is a real interior: a bed you want to crawl into, which is up against a solid stone wall. Carter spends all of his time between clients taking hits of weed in an empty lot behind his building. That junky lot and the under-a-freeway house of one of the characters are two of the only genuine spaces in the movie.

In a city designed for cars, intimacy, whether it's frolicking with a pregnant woman or dealer/drug client conversations, happens inside cars and the only genuine touch are a couple Vespa hugging-in-motion scenes. Impersonal sex only happens in sterile offices and swanky hotels, but these are only before and after glimpses. The greatest character flaw is narcissism and there are many degrees of it in Shrink. The self-absorbed characters make sunny, warm California a very cold and lonely place. The attention to self is immediately met on screen with the neglect of meaningful relationships, health and life itself. Unlike the other themes, narcissism is perhaps the most extensive characteristic here because it additionally comments on the characters lives and Hollywood: the profession of acting and the medium of film.

The "happy ending" here is that Jemma, played by Keke Palmer, is a girl with "real problems" (and a patient of Carter) who is enlightened after reading a script, written behind her back, about her hard knock life. This revelation unifies her with Carter and the wayward writer of the script, who she is at first infuriated with because he enters her world through Carter in order to score the material. The editing together of people's lives here is less small-world coincidental than it is claustrophobic. The most disappointing part of the ending is that the Jemma's acceptance is validated by an A-list Hollywood agent, which is that saddest comment of all because he, like most of the characters, is an unlikeable person we are somehow expected to warm up to.

Though there are a lot of references to television and movies, the content is rarely shown. Television works here as a public Catholic confessional, where you can come clean while airing live. Movies are ridiculed in one scene about executives deciding on a premise while they are simultaneously elevated as something to aspire to be in or produce. They are also presented here as alternative to psychiatry. In this regard they are more about the past, where the person sits alone in darkness and contemplates life. This Quaker sensibility of rehabilitation is rewarded in the end by a physical and emotional liberation. Jemma deals with the untold loss of her mother by watching older movies in theaters. She collects the ticket stubs and tapes them to her ceiling, which she conclusively tears up and tosses into the abyss of Hollywood from its signage border. Whether or not the ending is actually supposed to be uplifting, it struck me as cynically depressing and condemning, like the inescapable cycling of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and denies a freedom as attempted in movies like The Truman Show, Brazil or Fahrenheit 451.