Washington Post Staff Writer
July 31, 2009
"Shrink," a comedy starring Kevin Spacey, begins with a panoramic vision of Los Angeles, shot in the blue gloom of early morning from behind the "H" in the Hollywood sign. This is a clue to what the film promises, if not what it actually delivers: a behind-the-scenes view of the great American arsenal of entertainment.
Spacey makes his first appearance as Henry Carter, psychiatrist to the stars, in a horizontal position, surrounded by the appurtenances of a one-man party. There's booze and ciggies and, as we quickly learn, a lot of pot, too. His face is gaunt, his skin sallow, his eyes puffy and his beard overgrown. He is a rich, successful man, so why is his neglected doggie licking him awake on a sofa beside the pool, where he obviously collapsed from a surfeit of stinkweed a few hours earlier? Trauma. Big, sad, personal trauma.
Physician, heal thyself -- that's the nutshell of "Shrink." The comic entertainment along the way flows from two sources: Henry's patients, who are a familiar collection of drunks, narcissists and obsessive-compulsives, and from Henry's own addiction to the 420. Curiously, even films that cluck about substance abuse can't avoid helping themselves to big heaping servings of the comedy gold that is a smart, accomplished man in a suit toking on Mary Jane. Henry's addiction is amusing, at least at first, when we encounter him puffing on the devil's lettuce in the back seat of a car with his addle-brained dealer.
Henry's patients sort themselves into two categories. There are the bit players, including Robin Williams as an alcoholic sex addict, who give us the Hollywood Babylon color. And then there are patients and former patients who drive the plot, which eventually settles on a coherent direction. Jemma, a high school girl played by Keke Palmer, is suffering from a loss strikingly similar to Henry's. She is assigned to him as a pro bono case, and by looking into Jemma's sadness, Henry is forced to look into his own.
Ah, healing. Hollywood would be so much better without healing. Without healing, a smart, acerbic, hard-edged comedy might actually develop out of the premise of "Shrink." Without healing, the pain from which Henry and his young patient suffer might actually feel real to anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one. Without healing, the plot might be a little more open-ended, a little more true to the messy trajectory of real life.
But healing is a stern mistress, and she demands hard compensation from weak Hollywood script writers and directors. So "Shrink" eventually proposes healing in the form of . . . a Hollywood movie. Jemma, through an unlikely and not exactly coherent turn of events, ends up allied with a powerful, Type A, hard-charging Hollywood agent (Dallas Roberts), who undertakes a film based on a script based on Jemma's life.
This is a violation of Jemma's privacy so profound that the American Psychiatric Association would have a collective psychotic episode of pure outrage if it happened in real life. But it provides exactly the sort of morally vacant but narratively convenient route to healing that this mildly entertaining but philosophically trivial film needs to wrap up its frothy 104 minutes of vaporous fun.
Spacey is too good an actor to fail in the role. Williams, who has struggled with alcohol in real life, makes a fine alcoholic on film, a manic chatterbox of inanity who is painfully aware of his age and declining fortunes. Gore Vidal makes a cameo appearance that is believably true to his withering real-life persona. And Palmer is so sweet and vulnerable you want to give her a teddy bear and whisk her away to a better film.
"Shrink" is no worse than the average Hollywood comedy. But it shows, more obviously than most, the bankruptcy of standard-issue American pop narrative, circa 2009. Addiction and healing, pain and redemption, these are the only axes of the emotional, moral life. Dump that weed into the toilet, shave your beard, care for someone worse off than you are and get on with life. It's never that easy. So why do our movies keep promising it is?
Contains drug content throughout and pervasive objectionable language, including some sexual references.