“It’s like trying to quit crack when the pipe is attached to your body,” says recovering sex addict Tim Robbins in the opening minutes of Thanks For Sharing. Later on, one of his fellow afflicted, a five-years-sober survivor played by Mark Ruffalo, will explain to his love interest that the disease really is a disease—that it isn’t just “something men made up to get away with cheating.” There’s a distinct public-service element to this well-meaning movie, which seems as concerned with combating stereotypes and misinformation as it does with drawing neat (too neat) parallels between its characters. Oddly, counterintuitively even, what’s most endearing about the film is how middle-of-the-road it is. While 2011’s Shame treated the same subject with too much seriousness, and next week’s Don Jon treats it with too little, Thanks For Sharing acknowledges that sex addiction, like most other problems in life, can be a source of both suffering and humor. That Hollywood is now willing to make a totally mainstream rom-com about people clinically hooked on hanky-panky could be reflective of shifting public opinion—a sign, perhaps, that America may now be capable of seeing these struggling folks as more than just liars and perverts. That’s progress.
It’s also the only fervent defense worth making on behalf of Thanks For Sharing, which works much better as an act of earnest education than as, well, comedy or drama. With sitcomish tidiness, the film crosscuts among the lives of three fornication fiends going through the rehab process. (Their paths, and stories, periodically cross at support-group meetings.) Ruffalo, a put-together professional with a handle on his cravings, attempts to start a relationship with exercise fanatic Gwyneth Paltrow. The complications that ensue when she finds out about his history are much less painful (for the audience, anyway) than the couple’s insufferably cutesy banter. Ruffalo’s mentor figure is Robbins, a revered guru in the 12-step community who preaches the importance of forgiveness but can’t quite bring himself to bestow it upon his former heroin-junkie son (Patrick Fugit). Finally, Josh Gad plays Ruffalo’s sponsee, a young doctor who resists the program at first, then bonds with another addict (pop singer Pink) after his compulsions cost him his job.
Alone, these three plotlines all have their charms, most of them courtesy of the fine actors anchoring them. (Gad, whose rehab newbie starts out as a figure of crude comic relief, gradually steals the show.) The film’s whole, however, proves to be much less than the sum of its parts: Despite the messiness of his subject matter, director/co-writer Stuart Blumberg cleanly maps out his trio of trajectories, so that the characters improbably experience their ups and downs basically in unison. It’s the kind of screenwriting strategy that gets taught in classrooms, but rarely resembles how life actually functions. In particular, the climax—a breakdown of the support system, with Ruffalo and Robbins suffering simultaneous crises—smacks of phony catharsis. Valuable mostly as a cultural barometer, Thanks For Sharing normalizes sex addiction for an audience weaned on rom-com clichés. If only its story beats didn’t feel as rigid as a 12-step program.