No Boinking: Smart, surprisingly frank "Thanks For Sharing" does the work

Thanks For Sharing (2013)
112 min., rated R.

Glancing at the poster with three couples of recognizable actors, one would predict "Thanks For Sharing" to be yet another cutesy, glossy Hollywood Squares romantic comedy. However, aside from the radiant Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo smiling at one another, there's something more dramatically risky at work here, like the subject of sex addiction. Written and directed by half of the writing team of 2010's "The Kids Are All Right," the film is Stuart Blumberg's first hand at directing and rarely seems like a first-time effort. With a likably appealing cast and a smart, sensitive script (co-written by Matt Winston), "Thanks For Sharing" doesn't always soft-pedal its subject matter nor does it have all the answers when it comes to addicts and their carnal (and non-carnal) relationships.

Environmental consultant Adam (Ruffalo) can't walk down the Manhattan streets without getting an urge from a lingerie billboard or an attractive woman. Sober for five years, he's a recovering sex addict who's finally found self-control, thanks to his 12-step support group and sponsor Mike (Tim Robbins). When Mike encourages him to date, Adam soon meets Phoebe (Paltrow), a breast cancer survivor turned health nut, at a "bug party." She's up front to Adam about her cancer and her triathlon-competing nature, but can he keep his addiction in check while still being in a romantic relationship and will she accept it? Meanwhile, Mike himself is also a recovered alcoholic, working as a contractor but really making it his life's work to help other addicts. (To Mike, sex addiction is "like trying to quit crack when the pipe is attached to your body.") One night, he and his wife, Katie (Joely Richardson), think they have a home intruder, but it's just their son Danny (Patrick Fugit), who promises he's given up substance abuse. Can Mike make amends for his history with Danny and will Danny be different this time? Also in the group: Adam's sponsee Neil (Josh Gad), a perpetually sweaty ER doctor who's been court-ordered to join the program, is not only a compulsive eater but can't help himself from rubbing up against women in subways and rubbing one out to porn. He needs help more than anyone, especially when he keeps lying to everyone (and himself) that he's earned himself a 30-day sobriety button. Then Dede (Alecia Moore, a.k.a. pop singer Pink), an outspoken thirty-year-old salon hairdresser who's only ever been able to relate to men through sex since she was a young girl, starts attending meetings, and if Neil can help her, maybe he can help himself in the process.

Making a more commercially accessible movie about addiction (let alone sex addiction), writer-director Blumberg isn't opposed to respecting his subjects' problems with honesty and letting mostly natural humor derive from the situations, pulling off the tone more often than not. Many will fuss that "Thanks For Sharing" is specious and only scratches the surface of addiction, but with a script that doesn't curtail any of the three interwoven storylines, Blumberg manages to actually flesh out and dimensionalize his characters. His screenplay finds Adam, Michael, and Neil at different points in their addictions, gliding from subplot to subplot with cohesion. Adam has total self-control of his life by not owning a phone with Internet capabilities and having no TV or computer in his affluent apartment and, when staying in a hotel room on business, asking for the TV to be removed. It makes sense why he'd be tight-lipped about his disease with Phoebe before she finds his "sobriety medallion."

When certain characters fall off the wagon or come close to it anyway, there are too many crises all at once, but the performances help level out the story bumps. Ruffalo is affable and relatable as ever here as Adam, and when his strength cracks and he gives into temptation in one of the film's surprisingly frank and dark stretches, it feels organic rather than chained to the addiction-redemption formula. Paltrow is effervescent as Phoebe, a confident cancer survivor who doesn't know if she can handle another addict in her life again but owns up to her own flaws; she has her naggy moments, but believably so. Carrying over their nice chemistry from the 2003 stewardess comedy "View from the Top," these two have adorable, playful chemistry (and even some sexual heat) that it's a testament to them that their relationship feels real. As Mike, Robbins does some of his most impressive work in years, and Fugit does a lot with a little, pouring emotion into the role of Danny, who "white knuckles" his substance abuse withdrawals and tries bonding with his father over building a koi pond, even when this subplot momentarily bursts into melodrama. Reeling in the initial abrasiveness of Neil when his addiction and panic aren't being played up for laughs, Gad is terrific, and as a result, his platonic relationship with Dede is where the film's heart lies. Neil and Dede are there for one another, steering each other away from their perverse vices; the scene where she invites him to a non-sexual interpretative dancing event is lovely and liberating. In her acting debut, Moore is more than watchable; she's engaging and hugely charismatic. It'd be devaluing the rest of the film to say that one almost wishes it were all about Dede, who isn't only the strongest female character but the strongest character. Even if the performer playing Dede is Pink, Moore is a fresh face on screen and brightens every scene she's in. 

In the face of everything that it gets right, "Thanks For Sharing" is a little rough around the edges. The appearance of Becky (Emily Meade), one of Adam's past flings, makes sense of how much a disease Adam's addiction is, but their climactic role-playing foreplay is almost too big and jarring, and ends up forcing an overly neat, hug-it-out wrap-up. Also, Billy Bragg's slow a cappella song "Tender Comrade," though powerful on its own and meant to celebrate the close-knit camaraderie between addicts, clunkily and obtrusively plays during the film's final moments until the credits roll. Before those minor debits, the film has more nerve and recognizable humanity than expected. While we already have the tough, darkly grim wallow of 2011's "Shame," we can thank Stuart Blumberg and cast for this sympathetic, pleasantly lensed, comparatively lighter dramedy that no less makes a credible case for sex addiction being nothing to snicker about.