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Thanks for Sharing: Forbidden Fruit Has Never Seemed So Poisonous

Forbidden fruit has never seemed so poisonous than in Thanks for Sharing, a remarkably sensitive and surprisingly romantic ensemble drama about sex addiction. A winsome mix of funny, harrowing, and smart, it’s most commendable for making characters who are addicted to bad behavior—and who refuse to blame themselves for it—somehow exceedingly sympathetic.

First-time director Stuart Blumberg, the screenwriter of The Kids Are All Right, renders an incisive and humanizing portrait of addiction, as well as its attendant issues of self-restraint, self-esteem, and self-destruction. The daily struggle to “quit [the proverbial] crack while the pipe’s attached to your body” is dramatized by three men, played by Mark Ruffalo, Josh Gad, and Tim Robbins, who occupy various stages of sexual compulsion and control.

In The Avengers, Ruffalo’s baggy eyes and look of perpetual unease were perfectly exploited to illustrate the human cost of being the rage-aholic Bruce Banner. They serve a similar purpose here; Ruffalo’s elegantly monkish bachelor Adam never stops “working” to resist temptation. He follows the Sex Anon rules to the letter: The ban on TVs and laptops means he has hotel staff remove the flat screen from his room on work trips, and the prohibition against sex outside of a relationship, including masturbation, means he hasn’t come in five years. With his asymmetrical eyes and grimacing smiles, Ruffalo clinches that last detail.

Entropy arrives in the form of Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a love interest Adam meets at an insect barbecue. (Is that what the rich and beautiful are up to these days?) To keep her around, he breaks his first Sex Anon rule: He doesn’t disclose his “condition.” As longtime singles who think they’re too smart to be disappointed again, they make for a compellingly damaged couple.

Paltrow can generate sparks with pretty much anyone, but her character’s hesitant courtship with Adam is captivating because Phoebe is the rare female romantic lead allowed to have a personality. She’s as fun as she is eager to show off, and all the more charming for it. Around Adam, she’s a bird of prey: gimlet-eyed, aggressively athletic, ready to swoop in at the first sign of weakness. But he likes it, and she’s not too rough with him. As a breast-cancer survivor, Phoebe is briskly breezy during their first sexual encounter: “Yes, my tits are fake. That’s what happens when your real ones try to kill you.” (After five years, he is merely brisk.)

But love won’t conquer addiction. After he’s forced to admit his compulsion, Adam reveals why he’s reluctant to bed her: His former dependence has so thoroughly divorced sex from affection, and so robustly chained it to shame, that his body and mind can’t work together anymore. And yet, the couple are optimistic that better days will come. Their connection offers the kind of hope that makes addicts’ never-ending battles against themselves seem worth fighting.

Despite his own struggles with “sobriety,” Adam takes on sponsorship duties to initiate Neil (Gad) into the Sex Anon brotherhood. Court-ordered into the group after rubbing against a woman on the subway, Neil doesn’t hit bottom until he’s fired for aiming an upskirt camera at his boss.

Neil strikes up a friendship—or rather, is struck a friendship with—another newbie, one of the few women at S.A. The film flirts with that old joke about sex addicts finding partners at the meetings, but brassy Dede (the singer Pink, credited as Alecia Moore) is too twitchy with self-loathing to let herself be seduced by Neil.

Neil’s initial refusal to take the tenets of Sex Anon seriously—and his baldly predatory behavior toward women—makes him the hardest to like. It’s frustrating, then, that the script handles the character with kid gloves by giving him the most triumphant storyline and shifting the blame for his assaultive activities on an overbearing Jewish mother (Carol Kane). In redeeming Neil, Blumberg simply surrenders the character to Gad’s considerable charisma.

On the other side of the experience spectrum lies Mike (Robbins), a gregarious, silver-haired papa bear with an aged collection of proverbs and a 15-year sobriety chip. But as his drug-addict son (Patrick Fugit) loves to point out, the Mike-knows-best routine is an act. Lying in wait is a violent, unforgiving son of a bitch who cares more about his S.A. fraternity than his family. His ugliest self emerges when he’s self-righteously condescending toward other addicts, like his son, who are determined to kick their habit on their own.

Such lived-in details can also feel like insular concerns. But if there are scenes in Thanks for Sharing that wouldn’t feel out of place in a PSA for Sex Anon meetings, they’re also believable as snippets of real conversations. And those moments help build a world that’s not a microcosm of ours, but of others’. Ultimately, Blumberg’s film is a plea for empathy for people with problems that aren’t particularly relatable, but in need of consideration all the same. It’s a worthwhile plea in a small gem of a movie.

 

 

 

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Book of Mormon’s Most Outrageous Outtake!

When Broadway finds a ka-chinging trend, it really sticks with it, which is probably why I counted no fewer than five shows about con artists this season and six about religion.

And The Book of Mormon and Sister Act fit into both genres! In that bodacious pair of hit musicals, “religious” folk lie about either who they are or what they’re selling, but everyone winds up being liberated by them anyway, so they all end up gleefully singing showtunes together. And that could be a metaphor for Broadway itself.

At the reception for the Drama Desk Award nominees last week, Sister Act’s star Patina Miller told me, “Religion is so strong, it can make or break a conversation. We’re highlighting it without making fun of it. We’re celebrating it!” And jazzing it up just a tiny bit. The night I saw the show, a nun in the audience wasn’t crossing herself, even though the onstage sisters were rapping, swiveling their hips in lamé habits, and talking Yiddish.

Meanwhile, Mormon is disturbing the occasional prudish straggler. (“They can’t get past the third song,” the show’s Rory O’Malley—who sings the hilarious “Turn It Off,” about how to deal with gay urges—told me at the Drama Desk event.) But for the most part, customers are screaming with joy, since the show has the uncanny ability to poke merciless fun at its targets while making you smile with recognition and even affection. It’s the new Producers.

O’Malley went so far as to swear to me that real Mormons have told him the show is spot-on accurate about the rigors of missionary work. “Really?” I moaned. “I didn’t realize this was a documentary, especially when the villagers sing ‘Fuck you, God, in the cunt’!” “They hear it,” he played along, smiling, “but it’s not sung.”

At the Tony nominees meet-and-greet two days later—yes, I’ve been working the circuit like a missionary—Mormon’s co-director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw gave me his documentary-like memories of rehearsing that outrageously cunt-agious scene. “I came aboard late,” Nicholaw said, “so everyone had numbed themselves and been OK with it. But for me to say, ‘OK, folks, let’s take it from blankety-blank in the blank’ into the mic was a little jarring. I had just done Elf, so I went from ‘Let’s take it from sparkle, jolly twinkle’ to ‘Let’s take it from blankety-blank!’ ” “Actually, the Elf saying sounds dirtier to me,” I suggested, wickedly. “In a strange way!” agreed Nicholaw, laughing.

Did the moxieish musical ever include a specific reference to the Mormons’ stance on gay marriage? No, said Nicholaw, “it was actually written before all that Prop. 8 stuff. There were discussions about it, but Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn’t want to go there.” They turned it off! But as Nicholaw reminded me, there’s a satirical line in the song “Salt Lake City” that pretty much makes the case anyway: “The people there are open-minded and don’t care who you’ve been.” Oh, yeah, it’s a regular bunch of sparkle jolly twinklers, LOL.

Alas, Parker and Stone were away working on something called South Park. (They’re the Mo’Nique of the Tonys—unable to pound the whole schmooze circuit, but slam-dunking the awards anyway.) But co-writer Robert Lopez popped up to deliver insight about cross-pollinating with the daft duo. “We met randomly,” he told me, “when they came to see Avenue Q [which Lopez co-wrote] from a puppet point of view because they were doing Team America.”

Collaborating on Mormon from a human point of view, said Lopez, “We had a zillion laughs, and we got stuck a lot.” Whenever that happened, they’d find funny clips on YouTube to massage the pain—like one of a guy who ends up caught in a big, collapsed balloon, “so it’s like he’s trapped in a giant condom. That became our metaphor.”

Where did they draw the line, humor-wise? “At unfunny,” said Lopez. “Something that doesn’t work or get a laugh, especially if it’s offensive and hardcore.” This prompted the greatest story of all time—even greater than the saga of Joseph Smith—and it did get a laugh. Lopez told me that at one tech rehearsal, Lewis Cleale—who plays both the father and Jesus Christ—didn’t have time to make a costume change. So during the “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” number, where the father gets fucked by Jeffrey Dahmer, he came out dressed as Jesus. “So Jesus was being fucked by Jeffrey Dahmer!” remembered Lopez, cringing. In the blankety-blank!

Dressed like a working actor, Josh Gad—who plays Elder Cunningham—told me the show’s sacrilegious hijinks initially gave him pause. “When I got the demo,” Gad said at the Tonys event, “the first thing I heard was the ‘Hakuna Matata’ send-up.” Huh? Is that what “Fuck God in the cunt” was originally called? “No, they’ve asked us not to talk about the name,” he explained. “They don’t want that to be out there.” Oh, I see. Cunts! Anyway, said Gad, “I told my agent, ‘I don’t know if I can be a part of this. I don’t want to get shot’! Then I read the script and I said, ‘Great!’ ” And that, it turned out, was the perfect missionary position to take.

By now I had asked so many blankety-blank questions that after I requested a chat with Elder Price, a/k/a Andrew Rannells, he was quickly pulled away to the opposite end of the table.Oh, well. I was happy to talk to Tony Sheldon and ask if his own moxieish musical, Priscilla, killed La Cage because there was room for only one drag show in town. “Nothing can kill Harvey Fierstein!” he deadpanned. Hallelujah.

musto@villagevoice.com