Thanks for Sharing: Toronto Review

Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow
A compassionate and frequently funny look at sex addiction that rolls out too many pat developments to muster much depth.

Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad and Pink star in Oscar-nominated screenwriter Stuart Blumberg's directing debut, about a handful of people battling sex addiction.

TORONTO -- With a subject as specific as sex addiction, comparisons to last year’s Shame are inevitable. That dark drama was a deep-probe character study, intensely focused on a man consumed by his cravings. By contrast, Thanks for Sharing is an ensemble piece juggling humor with sober observation of three men intent on overcoming their dependence on the pleasures of the flesh. Making a technically polished directing debut, screenwriter Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right) has in essence crafted the date-night version of the sexaholic’s confessional.

While it doesn’t crawl under the skin the way the Steve McQueen film did, this seriocomedy probably will prove more widely accessible, with a marketable name cast and a glossy portrait of New York as a playground of visual stimuli. Captured in crisp advertising imagery and singing colors by cinematographer Yaron Orbach, it’s a metropolitan catwalk, a promo-reel for romance and desire. Gorgeous women glide along the streets, pretty young couples make out on the High Line, and every billboard, bus hoarding and taxi TV explodes with sensuality.

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All of that keeps Thanks for Sharing watchable and mildly entertaining, even if it’s 15-20 minutes too long. What stops the film from being more satisfying, however, is a problem with the way the central character’s arc takes shape, and a key piece of miscasting.

Bashing Gwyneth Paltrow has become a tired, easy sport that anyone can play. But her preening performance in an inconsistently drawn role here is a major intrusion.

A smart, soulful environmental consultant celebrating five years in recovery, Marc Ruffalo’s Adam is carefully set up to give the film a core of emotional integrity. When his sponsor, Mike (Tim Robbins), insists it’s time for him to bite the bullet and start dating again, he conveniently meets Paltrow’s Phoebe at a foodie bug-tasting evening. She’s a cancer survivor and fitness fanatic whose previous boyfriend’s alcoholism gave her an aversion to addicts, which means Adam predictably stalls before sharing details of his recovery.

In a staggeringly miscalculated scene, Phoebe processes the unsettling news and then gives the relationship another shot by stripping down to fetish lingerie and demonstrating her lap-dancing skills on a stunned Adam. While this reads as insensitive, sadistic, stupid or all three, Blumberg and co-scripter Matt Winston justify the behavior by having Phoebe say: “I’m a very sexual person. I need to express that side of me.” The queen of mixed signals, she’s a phony character and a too-transparent catalyst for Adam’s inevitable fall from the wagon.

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This shortchanges Ruffalo, who gives a typically sensitive performance, both in his monastic adherence to the vigilant rules of sobriety and his wounded admission of defeat. But it’s hard to remain invested in whether or not Adam and Phoebe work things out. He deserves better.

The film has more nuance and credibility in its secondary strands. One concerns the stubbornness of Mike, an aphorism-spouting addiction group elder statesman, who has little faith in the claim that his ex-junkie son Danny (Patrick Fugit) is now clean and eager to atone for his missteps. And Danny is still waiting for Mike’s contrition for his drunken toxicity during the boy’s childhood. Both actors bring conviction to the gradual bridging of the distance between them, and the test of their hard-won trust, with Joely Richardson adding tender notes as Danny’s mother.

Also getting considerable attention is the progress of Neil (Josh Gad), a chubby young ER medic doing court-ordered SAA time for nonconsensual frottage. Unrepentant at first, and reluctant to adopt the austerity measures required by the program -- no television, no Internet, no masturbation, no subways -- Neil alienates his designated sponsor, Adam. But when he’s fired as a result of his illness, he gets serious. Help comes, paradoxically, from the lone female in the group, Dede (Alecia Moore), a tattooed tough girl who has hit 30 with the realization that she can only relate to men through sex.

A breakout star of The Book of Mormon on Broadway, Gad does the film’s comedic heavy lifting, much of it demeaning physical gags and scenes with his suffocating Jewish mother (Carol Kane). But it’s in the sweet blossoming of Neil’s loving yet platonic friendship with Dede, and their mutual support, that Gad’s work resonates most. Better known as pop-punkster Pink, Moore proves a capable actor and a relaxed, enormously likable screen presence.

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Showing an even-handed mix of dramatic episodes with light moments, Blumberg and Winston’s script mostly treats sex addiction not as joke fodder but as a serious condition. Unlike the director’s work on The Kids Are All Right, however, in which every emotional response felt organic to the characters and their situation, Thanks for Sharing is resolutely neat and tidy. Not to mention overwritten. Too much of what happens as the characters undergo their various brushes with failure and redemption feels predetermined, slapping what aims to be a much savvier film with a debilitating touch of the formulaic.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Production: Olympus Pictures, Class 5 Films
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Gwyneth Paltrow, Tim Robbins, Josh Gad, Joely Richardson, Patrick Fugit, Carol Kane, Alecia Moore, Emily Meade, Isiah Whitlock, Michaela Watkins, Poorna Jagannathan
Director: Stuart Blumberg
Screenwriters: Stuart Blumberg, Matt Winston
Producers: William Migliore, David Koplan, Leslie Urdang, Dean Vanech, Miranda de Pencier
Executive producer: Edward Norton
Director of photography: Yaron Orbach
Production designer: Beth Mickle
Music: Christopher Lennertz
Costume designer: Peggy Schnitzer
Editor: Anne McCabe
Sales: Voltage Pictures/UTA
No rating, 112 minutes