If you’ve heard anything at all about the film “The Sessions,” the fact you’ve heard is probably that Helen Hunt gets totally naked in it. If you’ve actually seen the film, you realize that in the end, that’s kind of all there is to know about it. After all is said and done, you must conclude that this is one of those stories that has an interesting premise but doesn’t really move past that.
Here is that interesting premise: the talented John Hawkes stars as Mark, a guy whose childhood bout with polio left him severely handicapped, spending most of his time in an iron lung. However, he’s a very smart and determined person, and attended college. He’s a poet, journalist and devoted Catholic. On an assignment interviewing other disabled people about their sex lives, he gets a bright idea that there might be a whole aspect of human existence that is passing him by. We witness his unrequited love for a beautiful aide in one of the film’s more promising early scenes.
Hawkes initially makes Mark a compelling guy; people really care about him when they get to know him. However, as the film moves along, no further complexity is revealed. He visits his friendly neighborhood priest, played rather generically loveable by William H. Macy, and with his encouragement, seeks out sex surrogate Helen Hunt to help him discover his sexual self.
Once the movie answers the question, “What the Helen Hunt is a sex surrogate?” it becomes repetitive. Basically, although she is paid to have intercourse with people, Hunt is a therapist not a prostitute because she’s there in an altruistic, educational capacity, she only allows six sessions to avoid personal attachments to form, and once home, she describes her sessions into a little tape recorder. That part is particularly redundant since, believe me, we see it all the first time, no need for a recap.
So, once we get past the shock of seeing Helen Hunt in her birthday suit, and we get past the shock of the frankness of deflowering this poor shriveled iron lung dude, the movie is actually pretty dull. I could have used a subplot. Every supporting character is blandly, well, supportive. Not a single person bats an eyelash at the whole set-up, which is nice for Mark but boring for us. His priest is delighted. His aides are thrilled.
Above all, it is Mark himself who comes to suffer from excessive niceness. He is, on the one hand, very intelligent but some instances of his naïveté are unconvincing. It’s like no one wanted to risk being seen as rooting against the poor fellow, even the actor portraying him. He was so darn loveable that we really didn’t have anywhere to go.
The film is based on a true story; a real journalist who lived like this sought a sex surrogate and improved his life. Proud we are of all of them. Nevertheless, if it is possible to be bored by a movie this graphic, you might well find yourself feeling that way. Every one of their sessions involves the same thing; in detail, Hawkes rounds the proverbial bases, and everyone’s loving, mature and matter-of-fact attitude pervades every scene.
The whole enterprise just plodded down for me, becoming ponderously IMPORTANT and SENSITIVE, until it concluded in a predictably warm, sweet yet sad way, and I felt as if I had just watched a very special episode of “Mad About You,” or a sincere after school special that addressed a very, very unusual problem. And that problem was that one person got naked, another person pretended to live in an iron lung, but nobody won an Oscar. I can’t believe Sean Penn let this thing get made without him. He’s probably starving himself down for the remake right now. Or maybe Tom Hanks could play both characters. Boats were missed on this one.