Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Spacey Shrink

Hollywood is that strange place where cut-throat business meets New Age psycho-babble. Yet, it must be somewhat self-aware, considering how often it satirizes itself and California’s other neurotic beautiful people in films like The Player, Bowfinger, L.A. Story, and Serial. While those are all far superior films, there are at least some stirrings of life to be found in that shopworn comedic genre, as is sometimes demonstrated by Jonas Pate’s Shrink (trailer here), which opens in select cities this Friday.

Dr. Henry Carter is a respected analyst to the stars and a best-selling self-help author. He is also a complete mess, smoking marijuana like a chimney in order to cope with his wife’s recent suicide. Most of his vapid Hollywood clientele deserve a shrink on autopilot, but he temporarily snaps out of his torpor when seeing a disturbed African American high school student pro bono.

It turns out they suffer a similar grief, but self-medicate in different ways. He smokes dope, young Jemma indulges in repertory cinema. Yet, their scenes together are surprisingly well written and played scrupulously straight. Kevin Spacey never overplays the role of psychologist on the verge of a nervous breakdown, always tempering Carter’s self-destructive behavior with a sense of fundamental decency (which is refreshing). Likewise, Keke Palmer, recognizable as the lead in Akeelah and the Bee, plays another realistically smart, believably troubled teenager.

While Shrink has some unexpected insight into the grieving process, the comedic Hollywood material hardly breaks any new ground. One of Carter’s patients is a germophobic power-agent. Now imagine the most obvious gags for his character and they are probably in Shrink. Somewhat more interesting is a subplot involving an aging superstar trying to overcome his chronic philandering. One of the film’s big surprises is the unbilled appearance of a well known Hollywood star in this supporting role. Wisely, he foregoes his tiresome manic stage persona and is at least adequate in the part.

Shrink is a highly uneven film. At its best, Spacey and Palmer play off each other honestly and directly. However, at other times, it seems like a shallow, glitzy tour of the Hollywood party scene. At least cinematographer Lukas Ettlin makes it all look pretty.

Though imperfect, Shrink is a film that frankly exceeds expectations. It is most successful when it plays it straight, eschewing cynicism while trying to make real human connections. Maybe there’s some kind of self-help lesson in that. It opens in New York this Friday (7/24) at the Sunshine and Chelsea 9 theaters.

(Photo credit: Jihan Abdalla)