Let me just say right off that I don't feel sorry for any dude whose dick I can see from the back.
In the opening minutes of director Steve McQueen's new film, Shame, we see Michael Fassbender's lead character get out of bed, walk naked around his swank yet minimalist New York apartment, and head into the bathroom for that all-important morning whiz. He's shot from behind, but there it is, that impressive member, exerting a perfect stream between his legs, its owner unaware of the downfall that awaits.
Fassbender is Brandon, a dashing, charismatic urbanite who also happens to be a raving sex addict. Define raving, you ask? Brandon pleasures himself on virtually an hourly basis (yes, even at work), keeps stroke mags stashed around his apartment, seduces women with a smoldering stare, and has phone numbers for hookers pretty much on speed dial.
His extreme sexual appetite seems not to have affected his work or his social life when we meet him. But his X-rated (or, in this case, NC-17-rated) daily routine goes off the rails when his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up and crashes at his place. A troubled woman with her own dysfunctional hang-ups, she starts complicating his life right away by having a one-night stand with his boss (James Badge Dale). But there's another reason that Brandon doesn't want his needy sis around. Her presence reminds him of the traumatic past that he's been trying to, uh, ejaculate out of his system.
Manhattan has never sparkled more than it does here, but Shame presents the town as an all-that-glitters-ain't-gold black hole. It's a point that McQueen illustrates further by sending Brandon into a nightclub to catch Sissy performing the anthem "New York, New York" as a slow, aching torch song. The rendition brings tears to both siblings' eyes. Their city of dreams has failed to release them of the nightmare that has been their lives.
Rock bottom doesn't turn out to be all that nightmarish, though. Brandon's last-reel bender consists of a quick fix at a gay bar and an intense but unsatisfying three-way. The film hardly feels like an unshakable, engrossing study of a man's crippling, pathological descent into hell. (Paul Schrader's 2002 Bob Crane biopic, Auto Focus, gets a lot closer.) Fassbender gives it his suave all, playing a tortured soul dulling himself with sex, but McQueen (who previously directed Fassbender in the docudrama Hunger, his directorial debut) and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, don't seem to know what makes a sex addict tick. The real shame in Shame is that it isn't as shaming as it thinks it is.