I’m a huge Mark Ruffalo fan. Even so, I wasn’t convinced I wanted to see this film when I saw it promoted two years ago. A recent boring evening and Netflix conspired to change my mind.
Working in the field, I l feel an obligation to see major-release films that deal with sex addiction.
I did, however, dread the thought of viewing another Hollywood take on sex addiction filled with flat characters engaged in behaviors designed for comedic effect rather than authentic reflection.
In this case, I was wrong – sort of. Josh Gad’s character, Neil, an infantile hospital doctor with a voyeuristic appetite, comes closest to playing the buffoon addict so often represented on television and film. Neil looks up women’s dresses with a homemade scope, engages in frottage without permission with women he meets in public and doesn’t take his sex addiction 12-step group very seriously at all.
In short, he’s not the most sympathetic of characters. But, I have to admit. The character represents a certain type of addict that I have seen in treatment.
These addicts have the dual qualities of: 1.) being caught by a partner, employer, or the law engaging in illicit sexual behavior and 2.) being in treatment because they’ve been coerced to do so, not because they are ready for change.
The struggle of Ruffalo’s character, Adam, to get Neil to take his addiction seriously reflects the mismatch between the addict’s desire for sexual expression without bounds and social proscriptions which limit that very same desire. In short, Adam is saying to Neil, ‘I want your friendship but only on our terms.’ ‘Our’ in this instance representing the 12-step community and its code of conduct. Relinquishing part of oneself for others is difficult for addicts who often have a history of boundaries not being respected by parents and other important people around them.
In Hollywood fashion, Neil redeems himself in the end by mending his ways after bottoming out and saving a young woman sex addict who has overdosed on pills. The villain becomes the hero. If the film had ended here, I would have asked for my money back.
More interestingly, the stalwart Adam falls prey to his addiction after years of sobriety because of a relationship breakup. The addictive cycle wins again. The hero becomes the villain.
And in Adam’s fall, the film took on truer meaning for me. Adam’s descent led to a casual hookup with the overdosing woman and a rude awakening as she attemptd to take her life. You see, Adam had been with this woman years before, and they had enjoyed one another’s sexual company.
Only, this time he was seeing her through relatively sober eyes despite his lapse. The woman asked him to perform sexual acts he wasn’t comfortable doing. She wanted him to roleplay a father/daughter scenario that gave Adam the creeps. His refusal was the catalyst for her suicide attempt. Her suicide attempt was his realization that he had changed for good and didn’t want the addict life anymore.
When under the spell of addiction, we don’t see clearly. We are often complicit in encounters, sexual and non-sexual, that support our sexual needs yet fail to feed the rest of our beings.
The fellowship of the 12-step group can’t be appreciated because it is a threat to the immediate need for sexual gratification. Likewise, family, friend and work are subordinated to sexual drive.
Sexual partners who give every indication that their interest in sex is pleasurable and healthy turn out to lack as much as perspective on why they do what they do as we do ourselves.
There is no right or wrong here. Life and perspectives are always in flux. I just think it’s important to realize that things aren’t always as they seem.
It’s also important to acknowledge when artists make a contribution that helps us to see ourselves more clearly.
In this vein, I offer my thanks as well.