Thanks for Sharing comes on like a strained joke from a recovery counselor — appropriate, as it contains plenty of those jokes, if they indeed qualify as jokes. The movie wants to treat the issue of sex addiction with accessible straight-talk and good humor, but this gladhanding just barely conceals the stern lecture about the value of twelve-step programs underneath.
Twelve-step programs obviously help a lot of people. But so does, say, ibuprofen; that doesn’t mean it would make an interesting backbone for a movie. Stuart Blumberg’s movie is so steeped in the language and mechanics of recovery that it doesn’t have room for much else. It doesn’t help that the parameters of sex addiction, compared to say, drugs or alcohol, seem hazy, bordering on arbitrary. “Sober” addicts like Adam (Mark Ruffalo) don’t have to quit sex entirely, but are only allowed to have it in committed, monogamous relationships — but do have to quit self-pleasuring regardless, I guess as a means of control. But why is one loss of control acceptable while another is not? Are above-average levels of sex OK as long as they’re with the same partner? Is fantasizing allowed?
On its surface, that’s not an issue with the movie, which did not invent the concept of twelve-step sex-addiction recovery. But Blumberg treats the program so uncritically that its inconsistencies stand out; the only objection anyone raises is over the higher-power spiritual angle, which new recruit Neil (Josh Gad) is basically told to get over. On screen, it comes across as a chain of friendly but firm browbeating: Gruff, tough-talking multiple-addict Mike (Tim Robbins) berates his sponsee Adam, who in turn berates the weaker Neil, a doctor who has jeopardized his career. The addicts seem to have few non-addict friends, and the movie doesn’t seem to regard this as depressing.
The few non-addicts are there as relationship fodder: Mike clashes with his wife Katie (Joely Richardson) over their recovering drug addict son (Patrick Fugit); Adam meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) at a party, and they forge an instant connection threatened by Adam’s past. The scenes between Phoebe and Adam could have provided respite from all of the twelve-step jargon, and a few of their moments hint at the complexities of starting a new relationship with a sex addict. But the rom-com material is so skin-crawling in its cutesiness that Ruffalo and Paltrow (passing acquaintances, at least, from their time in the Marvel universe) look ill-matched.
Ruffalo obviously saw something in this part, and he tries his best; Paltrow’s presence is stranger and more puzzling. She’s a gifted actress with, in recent years, a smug and privileged public persona that has nothing to do with those gifts; I only mention the perception of Paltrow as an actual person in conjunction with Thanks for Sharing because Paltrow leans into that perception to an almost uncomfortable degree. Phoebe shows off her extreme fitness; engages in amusing but self-satisfied banter; and eats like a bird. Watching her play this smart, capable, and vaguely insufferable character feels akin to watching a sketch-comedy parody of Paltrow go through romantic-dramedy motions.
Romantic dramedy is supposed to be Blumberg’s specialty. He has experience in warm, relationship-heavy comedies like Keeping the Faith (which he wrote for his buddy Edward Norton to direct and star in) and The Kids Are All Right (which he co-wrote with Lisa Cholodenko). Directing his own material for the first time, Blumberg muffles potential comedy with that overbearing sponsor’s tone; the characters are constantly tittering at each other’s cute, mild, unfunny jokes. In its way, the movie feels repressed. Thanks for Sharing is a comedy-drama so serious that it’s afraid to let go and really laugh.