Sundance Reviews: ‘Shrink’ and ‘Arlen Faber’

01.23.09 9 years ago

Jihan Abdalla

The time has come again to discuss one of my favorite genres of fiction, the Vocational Irony Narrative. I’m referring to the story of the travel writer who hates to leave home or the relationship guru who can’t have a relationship herself or the podiatrist who suffers from horrible bunions. 

It’s a genre that writers adore because there’s a set formula that can be reproduced in any of a hundred professions, almost in your sleep. There’s the lawyer who suddenly finds himself charged with a crime! There’s the doctor who gets ill and gets sucked into the morass of the American health care system. There’s the fake medium who suddenly starts seeing real ghosts.

The Vocational Irony Narrative works well for television, because it’s a set-up for a character-driven workplace series.

The Vocational Irony Narrative also works well for indie filmmakers because it makes your premise really easy to pitch to financiers, actors and distributors. But just because the Vocational Irony Narrative is easier than more complex storytelling doesn’t mean it’s actually easy, cases in point, the Sundance offerings “Arlen Faber” and “Shrink.”

Reviews after the bump…

Perhaps no trope in the Vocational Irony genre is more frequently used than The Shrink Who Tries To Help His Patients Even Though He’s a Wreck Himself. 

As the title would indicate, that’s what Jonas Pate’s “Shrink” is. Kevin Spacey plays Henry Carter, psychiatrist-to-the-stars whose clients include a former A-list actress (Saffron Burrows), a superagent (Dallas Roberts) and a troubled girl (Keke Palmer) who dreams of making films herself. Henry Carter has written a bestseller about happiness, but still reeling from the death of his wife, he has little happiness of his own. His friends and loved ones are concerned and he’s self-medicating with weed he gets from a dealer named Jesus (the name becomes even funnier since he’s played by Jesse Plemons).

He’s a wreck, but he’s a wreck in such a familiar way. We know that The Shrink Who Tries To Help His Patients Even Though He’s a Wreck Himself genre, however disturbed the patients are, they’ll push the shrink in the direction of recovery. 

Although he’s a two-time Oscar winner, Spacey has been in a multi-year slump. Last year’s HBO telefilm “Recount” showed the first signs of a Spacey comeback and as by-the-numbers as “Shrink” may be, it features its star’s best big screen performance since “Beyond the Sea” or maybe even “American Beauty,” another character in pot-smoking crisis. Perhaps the reason Spacey is so good here is that he’s turned down the campy archness that has fueled phoned-in performances from “21” to “Fred Claus” to “Superman Returns.” 

It helps that the supporting cast is also very good. Spacey’s underplaying seemingly inspires Robin Williams to give a human-sized performance as a formerly hard-living actor with sexual temptations. Roberts goes a bit broader as an OCD agent, but he’s funny and he doesn’t just do a variation on Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold. As she showed in “Akeelah and the Bee” working opposite Laurence Fishburne, Palmer isn’t the sort of young actress to be intimidated performing opposite a titan. Pell James gives her most appealing screen performance as the agent’s pregnant assistant, while Jack Huston basically plays Colin Farrell.

“Shrink” is the sort of movie that will get knowing giggles at Sundance and in Los Angeles because it’s filled to the brim with inside Hollywood twaddle. Thomas Moffett’s script is full of realistic Hollywood details that exceed the norm for this kind of film, but that’ll probably be a hinderance in the film’s ability to play to a wide audience.

A lot happens in “Shink,” probably more than the movie can handle at its current length. I frequently lost track of how much time had to have passed to justify some of the changes in character and circumstance. Fortunately, I had the structure of the Vocational Irony Narrative to keep me on target.

“Shrink,” playing out-of-competition here, looks smooth compared to “Arlen Faber,” which is actually in the drama competition.

“Arlen Faber” stars Jeff Daniels as the famously reclusive author of “Me and God,” a spiritual self-help book. People turn to Arlen Faber’s book for answers and guidance, but guess what? In his own life, he’s weirdly compulsive, spiritually needy wreck.

Just as Kevin Spacey’s character in “Shrink” is set on the path to growth by his meeting with Palmer’s character, Arlen’s life begins to change when he meets young recovering alcoholic Kris (Sundance’s ubiquitous Lou Taylor Lucci) and overly cautious single mom Elizabeth (Lauren Graham). Both characters need help and Arlen seems like a good go-to guy, though it takes no time for them to realize that he’s worse off than they are.

Written and directed by first-timer John Hindman, “Arlen Faber” is an identity crisis of a movie. It tries to mix tedious spirituality with smart dialogue with low-brow physical comedy. The movie also can’t decide how it wants to treat its main character, whose book was written as a Q&A with God. For reasons I don’t understand, much of the drama of the movie hinges on the idea that everybody in America believes that Arlen literally spoke to God. This piece of information makes him popular, but doesn’t make him a prophet and he doesn’t appear to have spawned any religions. It makes little sense and Daniels’ performance is filled with details that seem arbitrary or poorly explained in the current version of the movie.

Hindman has his Vocational Irony premise set — doubly, since Graham’s character aligns spines, but can’t align her own life — but he doesn’t have the art of plotting down. Three or four major developments in the movie can’t stand up to even minor logical scrutiny, but they’re written in anyway.

As scripted, Arlen’s a pill, but Daniels makes him likable. As scripted, Elizabeth is a mood swing prone neurotic, but Graham makes her likable. As scripted, Kris is manic and disturbing, but Pucci makes him likable. As scripted, Kat Dennings and Olivia Thirlby don’t have characters at all, but the actresses are likable enough to make you wonder why they aren’t in the movie more.

It’s that star-power that probably got “Arlen Faber” into competition at Sundance, that or the Festival programmers’ love of Vocational Irony.

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