By Chaz Lipp
“Love is a journey,” explains Father Brendan (William H. Macy) to his parishioner Mark (John Hawkes). Unfortunately this rather trite sentiment is all Brendan can offer, seeing as much of his knowledge of romantic relationships has, in fact, been gleaned from listening to Mark’s experiences with a sex surrogate. He might’ve rhymed his opening line with, “taken on a gurney,” as that’s precisely accurate in Mark’s case. He suffered through polio as a child and has been lying prone on a hospital bed ever since. At home he remains in an iron lung, from which he pecks out poetry on a typewriter using a pencil held in his mouth. He used to be able to drive himself around in his motorized bed, until it caused one too many accidents. Now he relies on aides.
Sensing he may be nearing the winter of his life (he’s only 38, but the disease took a heavy toll), Mark longs to experience sexual intimacy for the first time. He’s had his share of embarrassing “accidents” while being sponged down by aides. Although he can’t move, he can feel just as well as anyone. Devoutly Catholic, he turns to Father Brendan for advice about how to handle his desires. Impressed by his frankness, Brendan gives him the green-light to pursue therapy with the aforementioned professional sex surrogate. Cheryl (Helen Hunt) isn’t squeamish about getting physical with Mark. It’s her job and she lets him know that’s all it is. Six sessions are all that’s allowed, so he better make them count.
The Sessions is based on the true story of the late Mark O’Brien and his experiences with sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen-Greene. I mean no disrespect to the real people behind the adapted story, written and directed by Ben Lewin, when I say this film is a skin-deep look at instinctive lust rather than true love. I know that the real O’Brien was an important advocate for the rights of those with disabilities. But this adaptation of his article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate” is basically a slice of male braggadocio disguised as a chick flick. Lewin presents Mark as a semi-incapacitated Romeo.
Practically all females who get to know him fall under his spell. His superhot, young aide Amanda (Annika Marks) actually has to leave his employ, her feelings for him have become so strong. To her credit, her replacement, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), manages to resist his charms. But even the old pro Cheryl finds herself stricken by Cupid’s arrow after consummating her relationship with Mark. She’s a self-described private person. She’s a married woman with a teenage son, after all. The patients with whom she engages in all manner of sexual behavior must remain entirely separate from her personal life. But there’s something about Mark that touches her on a deeper level.
The problem with The Sessions is that throughout its brisk 95-minute running time, we never really find out what the attraction is. We get rather fleeting glimpses of Cheryl’s home life. We never see her even make physical contact, let alone have sex, with her husband, Josh (Adam Arkin). In fact, Josh comes off more like a cuckold sitting on the sidelines while his wife goes out to sleep with other people. Josh, as described by Cheryl to Mark once she opens up about her private life (something she initially vowed not to do), is a self-styled “philosopher.” Translation: he hangs around at their house and thinks a lot. Their teenage son doesn’t seem to know exactly what his mother does to put food on their table, but he senses the growing tension between his parents.
So Mark is basically a cross between Steve Carrell in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Clint Eastwood in The Bridges of Madison County. He’s been idealized and offered up as a gentle soul and passionate lover. We don’t see any other side of him. Therefore, he fails to be interesting dramatically. It’s a shame, because John Hawkes embodies the role so fully. The character actor who has gained so much attention for his recent roles in Winter’s Bone and Contagion melts into the contorted body and pinched voice of Mark so fully, he ceases to be recognizable. But make no mistake, Lewin offers him up as a variation on the soulful loverman we’ve seen in countless Harlequin romances.
Cheryl and her strained home life is where the focus should have been. Hunt does what she can with the role, which mainly involves taking off her clothes. I’m not complaining; Hunt at 49 has a rocking body and she was brave to disrobe so frequently. But honestly the same movie could’ve been made without the nudity. A better movie could’ve been made by exploring the reasons that led Cheryl to become a sex surrogate and the toll it has taken on her marriage.
The Blu-ray transfer is a rock solid, 1080p, AVC-encoded work of very high quality. The clarity and fine detail are splendid. It’s not really surprising, considering the film was shot with the Red One digital camera and that digital source translates perfectly to the high definition BD. Everything has been done right. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a reserved affair, but it’s all right on the money for what’s required. Dialogue, above all, is most important and it is never a problem. This is a quiet movie, with Marco Beltrami’s music occasionally opening up to the rear channels.
The special features are hardly worth spending time with. Two deleted scenes, one with Cheryl and her son and the other a brief fantasy sequence, would’ve been a poor fit in the final cut. A series of promotional featurettes includes many film clips mixed with some intermittently interesting cast and crew interviews.
A monument to male machismo, The Sessions is a lightweight look at what must certainly have been a more complex life. A great performance by John Hawkes is buried under too much forced humor and one-dimensional writing. Mark is a lady killer who only needs his rather juvenile poetry (based on what we actually hear) and self-effacing humor to capture hearts. But for the central love story to work, we needed to see more of Cheryl and Mark getting to know one another. They are only in love with the idea they have of each other, their perceptions. And that’s not enough.