Thursday, August 27, 2009
In general, I'm not a big fan of ensemble films. "Shrink" is the rare exception that works on nearly every level.
The problem with movies boasting a large number of characters with layered, intersecting storylines is that they tend to be inconsistent. Some characters and plots are engaging and interesting, while others are not. We end up squirming in our seat, impatient to get back to the stuff we like.
Take "Babel," a high-profile ensemble drama from 2006. I found the parts about Cate Blanchette and Brad Pitt as tourists in the Middle East exceedingly tiresome, while the sections about the shepherd father and his two sons were powerful.
When they're done right, which is rarely -- Robert Altman's "Nashville" and Lawrence Kasdan's "Grand Canyon" come to mind -- ensemble films remind us that we're interconnected, and evoke a sense of community and place.
For "Shrink," that place is Hollywood, and the community is a collection of movie actors, agents and wannabes loosely connected through their association with a psychiatrist, played by Kevin Spacey. Henry Carter, the "shrink to the stars," is best described as the main character, although it's more of a first-among-equals type of thing.
There's also Jeremy (Mark Webber), a hipster screenwriter who is a parking valet by day. And Jemma (Keke Palmer), a high school student who ditches class to watch movies. And Kate Amberson (Saffron Burrows), a big star who's taken a few years off to raise a family, and finding that her options are limited for "older" actresses (she's perhaps 37).
Some of the characters appear to be based on real-life figures. Shamus (Jack Huston) is a young Irish actor with brooding dark looks who immediately strikes it big before he's really had a chance to find himself as an actor, or as a person, and falls into the drugs-and-partying crowd.
Others represent archetypes, such as Robin Williams as an aging star who needs help resisting temptations of the flesh, and Dallas Roberts as a super-agent who's too busy making deals and threatening adversaries to bother with actually reading scripts or watching movies.
The agent-as-cannibal thing has been done before (including by Spacey, in "Swimming with Sharks"), but Roberts adds notes of humanity and dark humor that lets us accept his character as a real person, rather than a cartoonish caricature.
Carter is despondent over the suicide of his wife, and spends his days smoking copious amounts of pot in between therapy sessions and promoting his book, ironically titled "Happiness." Carter is clearly in a descending spiral, and gets confronted in an intervention by his friends, but he angrily defends his need to grieve.
Screenwriter Thomas Moffett and director Jonas Pate -- both relative newcomers -- twist these characters together in a web of associations that's improbable, but feels authentic. Some of them are nice people, some are decidedly not, but hanging around with each of them feels like time well spent.