Confined to an iron lung for all but a few hours a week, poet Mark O’Brien, as portrayed in “The Sessions,” warns that his friendship can be demanding.
“But,” he says, “it’s worth the trouble.”
That’s an apt description for this festival-circuit crowd-pleaser, written and directed by Ben Lewin.
Based on the real-life writer from Berkeley, California, who died at 49 in 1999, “The Sessions” chronicles O’Brien’s determination, at age 38, to lose his virginity.
With muscles left useless by childhood polio and a body largely untouched by human hands, O’Brien craves emotional connection and spiritual union.
Sex. He craves sex.
Graphically portrayed, candidly discussed, and unabashedly celebrated, sex is the motivating force in this triumph of spirit.
In a career-making performance that relies on facial expressions and a compelling, reedy voice, John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone”) is a wonder, containing big-hearted optimism and a doomed man’s unsparing eye.
A devout Catholic (“I’d find it absolutely intolerable not to have somebody to blame for all of this”), O’Brien seeks the blessing of his local priest (a shaggy-haired William H. Macy) before embarking on his quest.
Standing beside a painting of Jesus, Macy’s understanding Father Brendan tells the gurney-bound O’Brien, “In my heart, I feel like he’d give you a free pass on this one. Go for it.”
Hawkes finds Cheryl Cohen-Greene (Helen Hunt), a sex surrogate with a clinician’s approach and a friend’s compassion.
The therapy is limited to six sessions -- the difference between a prostitute and a surrogate, Greene tells O’Brien, is that a hooker wants repeat business.
Unlike last summer’s blushing “Hope Springs,” “The Sessions” squanders nothing on coy embarrassment. Hunt’s Cohen-Greene, fully nude in much of the film, is bedside manner idealized -- plain-spoken but tender, serious but relaxed.
Though writer-director Lewin (a polio survivor himself) mostly avoids mawkishness, “The Sessions” is not without patness or lily-gilding.
No fewer than three beautiful women, including the surrogate, become almost instantly smitten with the acerbic O’Brien (he himself seems to have eyes only for the pretty and physically intact).
And as appealing as Macy is, his unshakable priest exists mostly to assure us (repeatedly) of the moral rightness in O’Brien’s sexual journey. The character rings Hollywood in a film that mostly honors its hero by avoiding just that.
“The Sessions,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is playing in New York and Los Angeles (expands nationwide in November). Rating: ***1/2 (Evans)
It must be a common fantasy, spending your dotage with a group of close friends. The French comedy “All Together,” written and directed by Stephane Robelin, pours syrup on it, throws in cancer and then smiles bravely through the goo.
The film doesn’t need an hour of exposition. We understand instinctively why the five old people move in together.
Once they do, instead of showing us what we’re interested in -- which is how such an arrangement might work -- the script cooks up ancient love affairs and detours into melodrama when there’s a real drama waiting to play out.
The men are Guy Bedos, Claude Rich and the great comedian Pierre Richard (“The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe”), who’s not so amusing as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Geraldine Chaplin, as a former shrink who’s a bit of a shrew, isn’t much fun, either.
Then why is this movie so pleasurable? In two words: Jane Fonda. She’s been given the plum role of a woman with a terminal illness. Her voice, still low and rough, is even more seductive in French, and she’s likely to convince many in the audience that if this is what dying looks like, it can’t be so bad.
“All Together,” from Kino Lorber, is playing in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Portland, Maine. Rating: *** (Seligman)
Action heroes probably shouldn’t come off like office drones.
“Health benefits,” says Tyler Perry as the title character in the disposable thriller “Alex Cross,” thoughtfully considering the pluses of a new job with the FBI. “Great dental.”
Getting laughs where it shouldn’t, director Rob Cohen’s tone-deaf take on author James Patterson’s books about a crime-busting psychiatrist makes no case for Perry’s versatility.
The popular, granny-dressing star of the “Madea” comedies is bland and affectless in his against-type action debut.
Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious”) reverts to his TV-movie training with rote, stagnant direction. Bored supporting performances from Edward Burns and John C. McGinley wouldn’t stand out on a passable “CSI” episode.
Perry and Burns play detective partners and lifelong buddies sleuthing for a sadistic serial killer (a gaunt, goggle-eyed Matthew Fox, making faces to flesh out the villain).
The screenplay by Marc Moss and Kerry Williamson includes some hokum about a wealthy industrialist, old grudges and off-duty payback when the killer’s crimes get personal. A preposterous coda ties up loose ends few might have noticed.
“Alex Cross,” from Summit Entertainment, is playing across the U.S. Rating: * (Evans)
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on books, Zinta Lundborg on New York Weekend.