Shame opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)
First off, let me just say I don’t feel sorry for any dude whose dick I can see from the back.
That’s the first strike against the lead character as played by Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s latest film, Shame.
Yes, it is silly to lose sympathy for a character just because we see the actor full frontal, his impressive little Fassbender swaying in the breeze. However, as the film progresses, you may find yourself not feeling all that bad for Fassbender’s protagonist, even when the movie expects you to take pity on him when he starts using his genitals to steer his own downfall.
Fassbender is Brandon, a dashing, charismatic yuppie who also happens to be a raving sex addict. I’m not exaggerating when I say raving: pleasuring himself seemingly on an hourly basis (yes, even at work), watching Internet porn as well as stashing stroke mags around his apartment (hey, the guy’s a purist!), practically having phone numbers for hookers on speed-dial.
While his extreme sexual compulsions don’t appear to affect his work and social life, his sex-filled life gets sidetracked when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and crashes at his place. She’s a troubled gal with her own dysfunctional hang-ups, and Brandon would rather have nothing to do with her, especially when she complicates his life by having a one-night stand with his boss (James Badge Dale).
But it appears there’s another reason why he doesn’t want his needy sis around: Sissy’s presence reminds Brandon of a traumatic past, which is quietly hinted at throughout the entire movie, that he’s been trying to ejaculate out of his system.
As much as the suave Fassbender gives it his all playing a tortured soul dulling himself with sexual satiation, co-writer/ director McQueen (who previously directed Fassbender in his debut docudrama Hunger) goes overboard with the whole sex-addiction thing. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan have a broad view of what makes a sex addict tick. Although Fassbender’s Brandon is drowning in a sea of auto-erotic excess, he is a guy who also knows how to get laid whenever he wants. He’s a playa who can get a girl hot and bothered with just his gaze (which he lays on a woman in the subway in the movie), but he can’t connect with women. This is evidenced when he tries to start an affectionate fling with an attractive black co-worker (Nicole Beharie), only to go limp when he realizes he can’t get off with someone he actually likes.
While Manhattan has never looked more sparkling than it does in Shame (sorry, Woody!), McQueen does present the town as an all-that-glitters-ain’t-gold black hole. Nowhere is that more apparent than in a scene where Brandon goes to a nightclub and catches Sissy performing “New York, New York,” not as the rousing, Sinatra-esque salute, but as a slow, aching torch song. The rendition brings tears to both Sissy and Brandon’s eyes, a quiet, puncturing reminder that this alleged city of dreams has failed to release them of the nightmare that has been their lives.
Unfortunately, with all the deep pluses Shame serves up, its clumsy minuses are too glaring and unpardonable. When Brandon hits rock-bottom and goes on that all-important, last-reel bender, McQueen has him engaging in such unconvincing debauchery as looking for a quick fix at a gay bar and eventually ending up in someone’s apartment, taking part in an intense (and unsatisfying) three-way. Moments like this ring hollow, once again revealing how McQueen gives a view of sex addiction that’s more half-assed than penetrating. You don’t walk away thinking you’ve seen an unshakable study of a man’s crippling, pathological descent into self-destruction (for that, see Paul Schrader’s 2002 Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus). Unfortunately, the real shame in Shame is that the movie isn’t as shaming as it thinks it is.