Shame is overwrought and lacking in real story, but the Fasspenis deserves Best Actor
If you just want the abridged Shame review, here it is: Michael Fassbender is a sex addict. That’s it. That’s the whole movie. Just stop reading right here. Shame is about Michael Fassbender having dirty sex and thinking nasty sex thoughts and looking at filthy sex porn on the internet for 101 minutes, with all the initial awesomeness turning to repetitiveness that would entail. Oh, and he has a humongous penis (yes, this is a shameless teaser for the rest of this review).
Okay, so there’s a liiittle more, but the “more” is the worst part. I suspect there’s a great short film buried inside Shame (mmm, yeah, baby, let me bury my short one inside you). A 25-minute tone portrait of a sex addict, Michael Fassbender’s relentless, rhythmic rutting thumps and gnarled sex face — a loving vignette of a madman in its own way, artful in its specificity. It’d probably win awards. But it’s not enough story for a feature, and it shows in Shame‘s third act, deteriorating into artsy montage and pulling every overwrought trick in the art school handbook in a needy attempt to seem, like, sooo serious and deep, you guys. I mean, really? A suicide attempt set to classical music? What are we, 13? (Oh right, my headline. I guess we are.). Still, for a movie that’s meant to depict the filthiness of sex, it isn’t quite filthy. It’s movie-dirty.
It starts out promising, and I don’t just mean the lingering shots of Michael F. Assbender’s monster dong (if you’d seen the film, you’d be talking about it this much too). In one of the first shots of the film, the Fasspenis leisurely moseys its way through a static frame in closeup, as we follow him, it, into the bathroom for a post-coital pee. These shots, not pure excess or exploitation, are more an introduction to the Fasspenis as a character all its own, the burly cyclops steering the narrative. It doesn’t speak, but it doesn’t need to. It is a penis defined by action. The Humphrey Bogart of penises, say.
The opening sequence and a few scenes after, as we’re introduced to Fassbender’s character, a slick e-business type whoring and seducing his way through NYC, all play to director Steve McQueen’s strengths — namely composition and sound design. If you’re the type that forgives lot in story for a nicely composed shot, you’ll find a lot to forgive here. Even more impressive is the quasi-minimalist sound design, playing up the drama in every day moments, footsteps, raindrops, rhythmic rutting sounds. Movie sound design has gone the way of tattoo in recent years, where everyone seems to be trying to compete for the busiest, most ornate sleeve, but in both cases, those who do it well tend to utilize the negative space – the silence, the bare skin (mmm, dat arm). Shame shows an inherent understanding that if you take a pause now and then or speak softly, the listener tends to lean in.
It’s the story that ultimately fails, exploiting without exploring, and it starts to go south when Fassbender’s character’s sister (Sissy) shows up, a lounge singer played by Carey Mulligan. The two have great (read: creepy, vaguely incestuous) chemistry, and Mulligan gives it her best, but there just isn’t enough story on the page. First of all, a lounge singer? As common a movie trope this is, when’s the last time you met a real-life human who made, or attempted to make, their living singing American Songbook standards in smokey bars? It’s the occupational equivalent of a 555 number. It shouts “THIS IS NOT REAL, THIS IS A MOVIE.” Even worse, we’re forced to sit through every agonizing verse of Mulligan’s 26-minute (I’m estimating based on how long it felt), under-pitch rendition of “New York, New York,” which rivals Isabella Rosselini’s performance of Blue Velvet for awkwardly off-key movie singing. Fassbender’s character is supposed to be moved to tears by his sister’s performance, but frankly it seems like simple eardrum pain under the circumstances.
The bigger problem is, what does this scene even mean? Is this really the best way to convey her complex inner emotions, a super slowed-down lounge performance of “New York, New York?” In 2011? It’s not organic drama. It’s referenced drama, cherry-picked and copied from previous works, as much a genre trope is the final showdown in a superhero film. Also, the song is obnoxious and her voice sounds like shit.
There’s a whole undercurrent of that referencing in Shame, where otherwise modern characters drink martinis and listen to jazz on records and watch cartoons that haven’t been on TV since the seventies. What year is this? What world is it? True, Tarantino does that in Pulp Fiction, but that was intentional, it was a genre film (it even had “pulp” in the title). In Shame, it feels like a substitute for story. Ha! I really tricked you into thinking I had something so say there, didn’t I?
This lack of content comes to a head with the suicide scene (I’ll spare you the whos and the hows), the grandaddy of all faux-serious art school tropes. Is it all shot in white, with pale skin and slow motion contrasting “symbolic” red swatches of blood? Of course it is! So important! It may not be as tiresome if you haven’t sat through as many bad art films and senior projects as I have, but even if it’s your first time, I doubt it ever has the effect the filmmaker intends. It’s just such a lazy shortcut to “serious content.” Don’t you see what a tortured artist I am? I fetishize self-harm! I’m so tortured I can’t even articulate despair! You can stylize it all you want with fancy lighting and music, but the old slit-your-wrists-in-the-tub scene still has all the depth of an emo teen’s Myspace blog. At least make it creative, like Patton Oswalt’s old bit about stuffing your pockets with candy and then jumping off a tall-building like a suicide piñata. Otherwise it’s just lame.
There’s a deep, dark secret from Fassbender/Mulligan’s characters’ upbringing that’s meant to explain their current screwed uptitude, a secret hinted at but never explained. It’s fine not to tell us, but the story has to go somewhere. Instead it kind of just wallows in despair porn. Big-dicked despair porn. Crap, I take back my first paragraph, that’s the four-word review.
GRADE: C+ (two out of five uncircumcised wangs)