In the dialogue-free opening sequence of Shame director Steve McQueen introduces us to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) a handsome New Yorker who goes through a morning routine tackles the responsibilities of his high profile day job socializes with co-workers and all the while struggles with an insatiable desire for sexual pleasure. As the strings of composer Harry Escott's score swell we see Brandon in two scenarios: holding back from advancing on a beautiful young subway-rider and succumbing to carnal instinct with the help of a prostitute. It's a powerful setup for Fassbender's breathtaking performance which ranks among the best of the year.
Shame forcefully declares that sex addiction is just as tangible devastating and perplexing as any drug or alcohol problem but does so without didactic lessons or over-the-top indulgences. Fassbender's Brandon is on the other end of the spectrum from Nicolas Cage's crazed alcoholic character in Leaving Las Vegas with McQueen breaking long stretches of repression with harrowing moments of emotionless lust. The film works as a character portrait following Brandon as he finds himself falling deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole and witnessing the effects of his descent on the people around him. Picking up women isn't a problem for the dashing gent—he does so with ease on many an occasion—but when he tries dating the one woman he has feelings for he's void of sexual stamina. Unfortunately even in the sprawling city of New York there's no outlet for Brandon to confide in—his work buddies are all looking for an easy lay and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who shows up at his door one inopportune day has a heap of her own problems.
McQueen shoots Shame with precision that never feels staged each scene camera angle and directorial choice amplifying Brandon's dizzying situation Whether Brandon's entranced by Sissy's passionate rendition of "New York New York " working off his own sexual frustration with a quick jog or seducing a barfly's girlfriend at a hole-in-the-wall joint Fassbender and McQueen work in perfect tandem to bring the audience into the struggle. You will feel the raw power of Brandon unleashing his sex drive and you will feel the sadness behind Fassbender's face as he drifts alone through the city streets. Both moods are powerful moving and true.
Shame doesn't have an easy-to-swallow narrative a real beginning or an end. When you expect things to align into a traditional structure McQueen and screenwriter Abi Morgan subvert expectations—as life often does. What keeps us engrossed is Fassbender who can pull off the balancing act of suave and broken without tipping us off that he's acting at all. Shame received an NC-17 rating because of its racy imagery but the real maturity on display in the film is the bare bones depiction of human behavior.
Like most American families the Grombergs are a little dysfunctional despite their amazing loft apartment sensational Apple computers and successful family law firm. Middle-aged Alex (Michael Douglas) is what his son Asher (Cameron Douglas) calls a "soggy cracker": a corporate attorney who's always worried about something he works in a soup kitchen and takes pro bono work to assuage his middle-class guilt over his day job. He also struggles to understand his oldest son who's a failure in college but does well enough as a drug dealer and DJ. Alex's father Mitchell (Kirk Douglas) meanwhile is your standard powerbroker-cum-bored-retiree; he founded the law firm where Alex now works and if Alex's whining is to be believed spent most of his time there while his son was growing up and definitely didn't do much understanding. These three main characters are so self-absorbed that it's not surprising the story of their lives comes off about as interesting as a soup-soaked Saltine; thank goodness for mom Rebecca (Bernadette Peters) who manages at least on occasion to be something other than tolerant and uptight second son Eli (Rory Culkin) a karate champion with a crush on the class runaway a sixth-grade goth girl.
Interestingly it's young Culkin of that other famous Hollywood clan who steals the show with a deadpan delivery that would make Jerry Seinfeld proud. His performance aside It Runs in the Family is notable for its four-for-the-price-of-one special on Douglases: There's grandpa Kirk his ex-wife Diana as the grandmother of the clan son Michael and grandson Cameron in his first role. If you thought it would be creepy watching a family of Douglases play a family on the big screen you were right. It's beyond creepy--it's uncanny in that is-this-real-or-is-this-a-movie kind of way and the acting style is eerily familiar too. Everybody wants to be the good guy everybody wants to say the punch line and nobody wants to take any chances. Still the Douglases seems to take great joy in their own movie and in working together and that brings a certain joy to the audience; despite its pervasive cherish-your-family theme there are moments when it doesn't go over the top and these are charming--if few and far between.
Director Fred Schepisi makes ubiquitous use of several generations of Douglas family photos to punctuate various scenes in the film--usually the ones where we're supposed to realize how much they love each other and learn what family really means. The audience is meant to come away with a nice smarmy sense of the quirky little realities of this "everyfamily " but just in case you didn't get it the characters--like the actors--don't take any chances that might make you question just how "nice" they really are; they resist any real rebellion or risk and there's always someone willing to try to understand if they do occasionally screw up. Aside from making for a pretty dull film it doesn't ring particularly true. For all the actors are really a family they don't seem very comfortable with one another on the screen so their characters' squabbles and heartfelt admissions come off stilted and forced their reactions seem too controlled and their relationships ironically don't give the audience a sense of any real bond between them.