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'The Sessions' review: Decent Oscar bait--not more, not less

**1/2 (out of four)

For better and for worse, “The Sessions” has “crowd-pleaser” written all over it.

The dramedy, which won the audience award and a special jury prize for ensemble acting at Sundance this year, engineers a small story for mass consumption. It’s falafel at a chain restaurant: Good enough, but missing some flavor.

The terrific John Hawkes (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Winter’s Bone”) stars as real-life poet/journalist Mark O’Brien, who’s spent the majority of his life in an iron lung after contracting polio at age 6. Thirty-eight and still a virgin, Mark’s ready to change that. So with the blessing of a priest (William H. Macy) who becomes a friend, Mark hires Cheryl (Helen Hunt), a sexual surrogate who, in no more than six sessions, will guide this man who has never masturbated and hasn’t seen his penis in 30 years, toward not just sexual comfort but experience and competency. What’s the difference between Cheryl and a prostitute? You don’t have to pay up front, which Mark learns after botching their first meeting by leading with, “Your money’s on the desk over there.”

Compared to “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” another true story whose main character could barely move but refused to let that stand in his way, “The Sessions” falls short in seeing the world through Mark’s eyes. Writer-director Ben Lewin instead courts a tone that falls closer to amusingly bittersweet than the wide, from anguish-to-affirmation spectrum of “Diving Bell.” When Mark’s attendant, Vera (Moon Bloodgood), makes a comment about simultaneous orgasms, you see the punchline from a mile away as a hotel clerk (Ming Lo) says, “What’s that?” And it’s unclear how Cheryl’s husband (Adam Arkin), who grows jealous when Mark expresses feelings for her, has made it this far with his wife and her profession.

Every actor’s strong, but Hawkes in particular uses each moment to articulate, with little movement, the mix of resilience and shame and ultimately freedom that drives his life as an author who types using a stick in his mouth—and a man longing to participate in opportunities most people take for granted.

“Scratch with your mind,” Mark tells himself when he gets a tickle on his nose that his body won’t allow him to scratch. In a different way, the enjoyable, moving and fast-paced to a fault “The Sessions” leaves you with an itch and a feeling that a nice movie could have been great. I felt the same way about “The King’s Speech”: very well-acted, not super-informative or memorable.

If “The Sessions” didn’t feature as many premature ejaculations as “American Pie,” we might have a real best picture Oscar contender.
 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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