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On Movies: Sex addiction isn't funny, except in 'Thanks for Sharing'

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 20, 2013: In one of his celebrated letters of advice to his son, Lord Chesterfield cautioned the lad about sex, noting that the pleasure of the carnal act was "momentary," the expense was "damnable" and the position was "ridiculous."

It's not just the position — or rather positions, most of which, one suspects, Lord Chesterfield was quite familiar with — that can be ridiculous. We find humor of all sorts, from low farce to high irony, in all aspects of sex. Jokes about sex are legion — outnumbering, I suspect, jokes about any other topic. And sex is such a popular subject for humor in the movies that there is an entire genre called "the sex comedy" — not to mention a sub-genre, the "teenage sex comedy."

Sex is funny — but is sex-addiction funny, except on the most superficial, frat-boy level?

It can be, on the evidence of "Thanks for Sharing," a superbly acted and entertaining if occasionally formulaic film that asks us to take sex addiction seriously but also has strong elements of comedy within it. The movie even has aspects of a romantic comedy, featuring a brief, bantering affair brought to life by Mark Ruffalo as a recovering sex addict, and Gwyneth Paltrow as a cancer survivor. She is recovering from a relationship with a junkie, and has sworn off all addicts, so Ruffalo's character keeps his particular compulsion to himself. It does not come as a surprise to the viewer when this omission proves to be short-sighted on his part.

Out of their relationship comes the most interesting question in the movie — how can a sex addict resolve the contradiction between his commitment to control his addiction and the natural desires brought on by real romance? Ruffalo's character, Adam, struggles with the dilemma, and you can see the struggle on his face and in his body, as he is both drawn and repelled by his lover's advances. Ruffalo's performance in a very difficult role — he's got to be funny, but not too funny; sexual but not too sexual — is a triumph by a fine actor. Paltrow is good, too.

Adam, who attends the 12-Step recovery group that brings most of the film's main characters together on a regular basis, has been working on his addiction successfully for five years by going to great lengths to avoid temptation. He even has the television sets removed from his hotel rooms on business trips — obsessive masturbation is this sex-addict's fallback position.

Adam takes his recovery very seriously, unlike Neil (Josh Gad), a chubby, wise-cracking emergency room physician who joined the 12-Step group under court order, but takes it so lightly that he is in the habit of videotaping beneath his female boss' skirt while conferring with her. Neil, at least in the beginning of the story, pushes the boundary between creepily funny, and just plain creepy. He could quickly become unbearable if he continues on this path.

In an unlikely but entertaining side plot, Neil becomes good friends with a rare female sex addict who joins the group, and chooses Neil as her sponsor. Their buddy relationship is good for both of them. Casting tattooed, bright-haired Alecia Moore (the punk rock singer Pink) as Neil's unlikely, equally needful companion may have been a ploy to sell a few more tickets, but Pink pulls off the role quite nicely. At times, Pink and Gad seem to be in a different movie from everyone else, but it is an entertaining movie, if a tad abrupt toward the end. Pink's character saves Neil, who is truly in need of saving. He is lucky he hasn't been maced blind for the sleazy way he slides up to women on the subway.

The movie has its deadly serious moments, including the scenes where we finally see what happens to Adam when he gives in to his addiction. This section of the film is potent, both shocking and sad, and it helps us understand what he was fighting so desperately to escape. For a while, early on in particular, we might have found ourselves wondering "What's the problem?" Near the end of the movie, Ruffalo shows us.

In the 2011 film "Shame," the British filmmaker Steve McQueen dealt with the subject of sexual addiction by blasting us with pain and self-hatred, assuring us that the sex-obsessed protagonist (Michael Fassbender) wasn't having any fun at all, either all by himself or with partners. In "Thanks for Sharing," which is much less explicit and considerably kinder and funnier than "Shame," director-cowriter Stuart Blumberg (He wrote "The Kids are All Right") supplies more pleasure than pain without failing to take his subject seriously. The film's generally successful mix of serious drama with comedy and a touch of bawdiness is epitomized in a good line of dialogue from a 12-Step veteran. He remarks that "recovering from sexual addiction is like trying to kick crack with the pipe still attached to your body."

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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