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“Adults Behaving Badly”

Grade: “Shame” (D+/SKIP IT) and “Young Adult” (B+/SEE IT)

IT’S EITHER FEAST or famine for British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen.  His last film, the nakedly honest “Hunger” of 2008, involved the 1981 Irish hunger strike while his latest, “Shame,” is a melodrama of excess, appropriately set in the city of too-much-ness: Manhattan.  The star of both those films, Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds,” “A Dangerous Method”) plays Brandon, a handsome professional addicted to sex.  When his sister Sissy (played by Carey Mulligan) comes to town, he’s forced to confront the error of his ways and with deadening effects.  Just as Brandon loses his stamina when canoodling with a woman he actually likes and admires, “Shame” is an impotent flick – a noodley, unfulfilling affair.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Shame” is that it’s NC-17.   My own 9:30 screening was preceded by a word of caution from a well-meaning usher, dispatched to tell us that the film is “intense” and that we may want to visit the bar upstairs before it closes at 10 PM.  “Shame” will no doubt spur the urge to drown your sorrows.  With a plot so thin it’s diaphanous, “Shame” follows Brandon from the depths of the subway, where he makes eyes at a beautiful stranger, to the towering heights of his office space where it’s unclear what Brandon does for a living, except that his hard drive has been confiscated by his employers.  His womanizing boss (James Badge Dale) gives him a mere slap on the wrist, calling his Internet history “filthy,” but happily joins him during his late-night sexcapades.

Brandon’s home life is no less troubling: sister Sissy beds his boss right before his eyes and her wrists are scarred from previous suicide attempts.  She’s also an aspiring singer, and we’re subjected to Ms. Mulligan’s painful rendition of “New York, New York” inside a lazily-lit lounge.  It’s also, aptly, her only number in a one-note film lacking any dimensionality.  Gone are such plot devices as rising action and character development.  The great irony of “Shame,” a film purportedly about sex addiction, is that it’s missing a climax.

Sex addiction remains a contentious matter.  Is it a real affliction or a cop-out for those lacking self-control?  Who else but the very beautiful could decry the problem of too much sex?  “Shame” sheds little to no light on this question.  If the red-flag of compulsion is a destructive impact on one’s professional and personal life, Brandon’s erotic preoccupations fail to qualify.  Only a puritan would treat Brandon’s love of pornography (unquenched by his onanistic trips to the men’s bathroom while at work) with such shock and revulsion.  Even more shameful is the way gay sexuality is inserted into Brandon’s downward spiral.  “Shame” suggests that Brandon has only truly hit rock bottom once he enters a red-lit gay bar, desperate for gratification, followed up by a threesome with two women.  The heavy orchestral music that accompanies Brandon’s conquests makes the whole affair laughably lugubrious.  As a Garden State native, I take particular offense to Sissy’s remark to Brandon, “We’re not bad people – We just come from a bad place,” since that place is New Jersey.  First, Snookie – now this.


IF IT’S CHARACTER and complexity you’re looking for –real people with real interiorities – look no further than Diablo Cody’s acerbic new comedy, “Young Adult” starring an unsmiling and spectacular Charlize Theron.  Like the protagonist of “Shame,” Theron’s character repeatedly wakes up, face-down, in her high-rise apartment.  She’s another rudderless and lonely thirtysomething for whom the thrill is gone.  She’s Mavis Gary, the high school prom queen who left her hometown of Mercury, Minnesota for Minneapolis (admiringly dubbed the “Mini-Apple” by locals).  Mercury residents think Mavis leads a glamorous life as a writer of young adult novels, but instead, she inhabits a dreary apartment littered with Diet Coke cans, pee-pads for her Pomeranian named Dolce, and a TV always tuned to the E! channel.  Upon learning that her old beau, Buddy Slade (played by a scruffy Patrick Wilson), has become a new father, she drops what she’s doing – including the one-night-stand still asleep in her bed – to win him back.  Mavis is driven by delusion, so much so that you’ll want to throttle her.  “Buddy Slade and I are meant to be together,” she insists, “and I’m here to get him back.”

A proud and aspiring homewrecker, Mavis is one of the most unforgettable female figures of the year.  Cody’s script flies in the face of every romantic comedy convention since her anti-heroine, Mavis, isn’t just flawed but ferociously unlikable: about as warm as the tundra, narcissistic, and like many of Cody’s characters, especially those in her uneven foray into horror (2009’s “Jennifer’s Body”), downright mean.  When Mavis runs into an old classmate, Matt Freehauf (a perfect Patton Oswalt) at a dive bar called Woody’s, she remembers Matt only as the “hate crime guy” who was brutally attacked by jocks – his leg and pelvis shattered by a crowbar – and replies coldly to his misfortune: “Didn’t you get to miss a lot of school for that?”

As in all of Diablo Cody’s scripts, the devil is in the details: a love of slang, socially awkward moments, and the banalities that define American life (its Pizza Huts, its Hampton Inns, its broken computer printers).  Director Jason Reitman (“Up in the Air,” “Thank You For Not Smoking”) also directed Cody’s breakout, “Juno,” and his keen sense of pacing and comic timing serves her script well, once again.  No one looks more out of place than the impossibly beautiful Theron inside a generic sports bar, but Reitman manages to go beneath that surprising surface.  When Mavis’s humanity finally emerges, at a Slade family party that she predictably turns upside down, you genuinely feel for her as some details of her and Buddy’s past come, kicking and screaming, to light.

Of all the Nineties tunes wafting through this little gem of a film (Cracker’s “Low,” 4 Non Blonde’s “What’s Up”), “It’s a Shame About Ray” by the Lemonheads may be the most telling.  It’s a shame about “Shame” but “Young Adult” is a full-grown work.