Forbidden fruit has never seemed more poisonous than in Thanks for Sharing, a remarkably sensitive and surprisingly romantic ensemble drama about sex addiction. A winsome mix of funny, harrowing, and smart, it's most commendable for making characters who are addicted to bad behavior — and who refuse to blame themselves for it — somehow exceedingly sympathetic.
First-time director Stuart Blumberg, the screenwriter of The Kids Are All Right, renders an incisive and humanizing portrait of addiction, as well as its attendant issues of self-restraint, self-esteem, and self-destruction. The daily struggle to "quit [the proverbial] crack while the pipe's attached to your body" is dramatized by three men, played by Mark Ruffalo, Josh Gad, and Tim Robbins, who occupy various stages of sexual compulsion and control.
In The Avengers, Ruffalo's baggy eyes and look of perpetual unease were perfectly exploited to illustrate the human cost of being the rage-aholic Bruce Banner. They serve a similar purpose here; Ruffalo's elegantly monkish bachelor Adam never stops "working" to resist temptation. He follows the Sex Anon rules to the letter: The ban on TVs and laptops means he has hotel staff remove the flatscreen from his room on work trips, and the prohibition against sex outside of a relationship, including masturbation, means he hasn't come in five years. With his asymmetrical eyes and grimacing smiles, Ruffalo clinches that last detail.
Entropy arrives in the form of Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a love interest Adam meets at an insect barbecue. (Is that what the rich and beautiful are up to these days?) To keep her around, he breaks his first Sex Anon rule: He doesn't disclose his "condition." As longtime singles who think they're too smart to be disappointed again, they make for a compellingly damaged couple.
Paltrow can generate sparks with pretty much anyone, but her character's hesitant courtship with Adam is captivating because Phoebe is the rare female romantic lead allowed to have a personality. She's as fun as she is eager to show off, and all the more charming for it. Around Adam, she's a bird of prey: gimlet-eyed, aggressively athletic, ready to swoop in at the first sign of weakness. But he likes it, and she's not too rough with him. As a breast-cancer survivor, Phoebe is briskly breezy during their first sexual encounter: "Yes, my tits are fake. That's what happens when your real ones try to kill you." (After five years, he is merely brisk.)
But love won't conquer addiction. After he's forced to admit his compulsion, Adam reveals why he's reluctant to bed her: His former dependence has so thoroughly divorced sex from affection, and so robustly chained it to shame, that his body and mind can't work together anymore. And yet the couple are optimistic that better days will come. Their connection offers the kind of hope that makes addicts' never-ending battles against themselves seem worth fighting.
Despite his own struggles with "sobriety," Adam takes on sponsorship duties to initiate Neil (Gad) into the Sex Anon brotherhood. Court-ordered into the group after rubbing against a woman on the subway, Neil doesn't hit bottom until he's fired for aiming an upskirt camera at his boss.
Neil strikes up a friendship — or rather, is struck with the friendship of — another newbie, one of the few women at S.A. The film flirts with that old joke about sex addicts finding partners at the meetings, but brassy Dede (the singer Pink, credited as Alecia Moore) is too twitchy with self-loathing to let herself be seduced by Neil.
Neil's initial refusal to take the tenets of Sex Anon seriously — and his baldly predatory behavior toward women — make him the hardest to like. It's frustrating, then, that the script handles the character with kid gloves by giving him the most triumphant storyline and shifting the blame for his assaultive activities on an overbearing Jewish mother (Carol Kane). In redeeming Neil, Blumberg simply surrenders the character to Gad's considerable charisma.
On the other end of the experience spectrum lies Mike (Robbins), a gregarious, silver-haired papa bear with an aged collection of proverbs and a 15-year sobriety chip. But as his drug-addict son (Patrick Fugit) loves to point out, the Mike-knows-best routine is an act. Lying in wait is a violent, unforgiving son of a bitch who cares more about his S.A. fraternity than his family. His ugliest self emerges when he's self-righteously condescending toward other addicts, like his son, who are determined to kick their habit on their own.
Such lived-in details can also feel like insular concerns. But if there are scenes in Thanks for Sharing that wouldn't feel out of place in a PSA for Sex Anon meetings, they're also believable as snippets of real conversations. And those moments help build a world that's a microcosm not of the whole world but of a marginalized piece of it. Ultimately, Blumberg's film is a plea for empathy for people with problems that aren't particularly relatable but one in need of consideration all the same. It's a worthwhile plea in a small gem of a movie.