Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Big Review: The Sessions

"I'll get up when the Academy calls."

John Hawkes gets his moment...and doesn't blow it. This review previously appeared in ICON and is reprinted with permission. 


The poster I saw for The Sessions includes this breathless blurb from Examiner.com: “Destined to be a player at the Academy Awards.” This comment is as deceiving—does the person actually like the movie?—as it is telling.

Between now and the end of December, we will be inundated with movies aimed directly at Academy members, efforts usually affixed with such adjectives as “inspiring,” “heartwarming,” and “crowd-pleasing.” Let’s be clear: there’s a difference between movies that shamelessly mug for awards (War Horse) and ones that earn them by being terrific and without agenda (The Artist).

Written and directed by Ben Lewin, The Sessions lies somewhere in between. It will be discussed come awards season because it covers the prestige picture playbook: earnest characters facing challenges, a storyline celebrating the tenacity of the human spirit, tasteful, functional nudity. Even though we know the film is conning our heartstrings, we don’t mind. We like the main character. His problems resonate with us. We can cry without feeling duped.

The Sessions introduces us to real-life journalist and poet Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) whose body has been rendered twisted and immobile since a childhood bout with polio. It’s a setback he’s overcome quite nicely. By 1988, he is a college graduate with a career as a working writer. And he has an upbeat attitude, something rarely found even in healthy writers.

In a life full of professional and personal accomplishments, Mark has never enjoyed a romance—in any form. He falls in love with his assistant (Annika Marks), a charming young woman who sees past his physical shortcomings but can’t reciprocate his feelings. Shortly afterward, he’s assigned to write an article about sex and the disabled. It’s unfamiliar terrain. “I feel like an anthropologist interviewing a tribe of headhunters,” Mark says.

But 38-year-old Mark wants to feel what his interview subjects discuss, so he hires Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate, to get his body and mind to respond sexually. Mark is as skittish as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but Cheryl is calm, soothing, and has unlimited patience. He soon falls in love with her. The therapist in Cheryl expects that. What she doesn’t expect is that she begins to feel the same way, which gives each of their mandated six sessions a delicious uneasiness.

The Sessions is a vexing movie because Lewin unintentionally trivializes the material. William H. Macy co-stars as Mark’s priest. Instead of offering a moral counterpoint to Mark’s plan, the padre playfully furrows his brow over these organized sexual conquests, proving that the Catholic Church is a swinging place, baby. During one of Mark and Cheryl’s Holiday Inn therapy sessions, his new assistant (Moon Bloodgood) discusses today’s agenda, simultaneous orgasms, with the hotel manager. “What’s that?” he asks, in a moment better suited for a sitcom. Lewin even has trouble steering the story; the finale is a deflating series of postscripts that almost negates Cheryl and Mark’s relationship. But he never loses sight of Mark’s plight, which is why we stick around. It’s not about getting laid. Sex allows Mark to feel like everyone else after a life of being in everyone’s way.  Anybody who hasn’t felt undesirable or unwanted hasn’t breathed a breath.

Attribute the movie’s heights to Hawkes, an ace character actor who refuses to chew the scenery or emote to the heavens. The obstacles imposed by polio aren’t part of the performance. It’s stripped to the essentials: a man wants to experience sex so he’s one step closer to reciprocal love. Hawkes’ fine work atones for another labored performance from Hunt, who still believes that ridiculous accents are the key to authenticity, and the criminal misuse of Macy’s talents.

The Sessions should be a player at the Academy Awards, thanks to Hawkes’ restraint and the film’s almost accidental dignity. It’s solid and spirited. And that’s probably more than can be said for the eventual Oscar nominees that will heartwarm and crowdplease their way to blandness. [R]

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