For a city which majors in the pursuit of success, beauty and personal fulfilment, the most powerful smell Los Angeles leaves in the nostrils is the stench of failure. The threat of it sits heavier than the famous smog. And it permeates every frame of Shrink, the director Jonas Pate’s low-key, small-scale drama about Henry Carter, a once hugely successful psychiatrist who has given up trying to make any difference to the lives of his mostly pampered yet addiction-addled patients, and who now spends seemingly all his waking hours swathed in dope smoke.
The movies have always looked kindly on psychoanalysts — from Now Voyager to Ordinary People to the whole of Woody Allen’s “middle” phase. It’s hardly surprising — look up Hollywood in Who’s Who and you’ll see therapy is its favoured pastime. There is an unswerving West Coast belief in the healing powers of this secular priesthood which must be the envy of the Catholic Church. Anybody who resists is simply providing further proof of just how big a screw-up he or she really is. Know-it-all Barbra Streisand tamed Nick Nolte this way in The Prince of Tides. Robin Williams brought Matt Damon to heel in Good Will Hunting. But there’s a feeling in Shrink that perhaps we have come to the end of this particular road. Physician heal thyself, it seems to be saying, and then tell your clients to stop being so deluded and self-aggrandising.
Henry lives with one ironic eyebrow always cocked. His self-disgust is barely concealed behind a passive, smirky knowingness. In other words, this is a job for Kevin Spacey, who has to deliver only a slight variation on his American Beauty persona to make Henry utterly believable. Spacey has been missing from the big screen for some years now, thanks to his directorship of the Old Vic, but also, one suspects, because in this increasingly 3-D world, his kind of roles are increasingly thin on the ground. His performance in this otherwise lacklustre trawl through Californian self-absorption makes it worth seeing. You sense that, despite the most overt cause of his disillusionment (the suicide of his wife), Henry is anyway sceptical about this whole psychoanalysis thing he has found himself in and is more concerned with working out why we’re here in the first place. Spacey remains one of our finest screen actors.
Henry’s clients are mostly from stock LA central casting: the ageing beauty, the sociopathic agent, the alcoholic young actor, the over-the-hill movie star (an uncredited Robin Williams). Very little happens, although salvation of a limited kind comes for Henry in the shape of a disturbed black teenager, the only truly sympathetic character — a predictable development you can see coming from miles away (this is Hollywood, after all). But the film does convey accurately the fact that for the most part, despite all the delving into dysfunctional behaviour, the one thing which is in short supply in this world is the very thing therapy is meant to bring about: self-knowledge.
The lack of drama in Shrink would not have mattered if there had been some attempt at wit or humour; the movie is too listless to crack a joke. Despite their devotion to therapy, many of the Californians I knew when I lived there were certainly able to see the funny side. I remember asking one friend, a comic actor, if, after 9/11, he would be looking less inwards and more outwards during his sessions. “I’m not sure,” he replied. “Will it cost more?”
Woody Allen, of course, got a huge amount of comedic mileage out of the psychiatrist’s couch, while believing in it all at the same time. His New York (and the one I grew up watching in the movies) was one populated by uptown types kvetching in therapeutic terms over the meaning of life, death and the universe, usually to a wonderful Cole Porter soundtrack. But Allen’s neurotic Manhattan has disappeared, pushed aside by the frocks and sexual frankness of Sex and The City. The second movie of the hugely successful TV series is now out but, such is the misplaced self-importance of the makers of this franchise, we critics were not being treated to a screening until the very week of release, which would have been far too late for this magazine. I’m sure you’re not too disappointed by this.
It is, however, worth noting how the enormous success of Sex and The City has changed utterly how people look at New York and what they expect of it. In the world of Carrie Bradshaw and her friends, there’s not a shrink to be seen, the only therapy mentioned is the retail variety, and the women’s version of feminism, suffused as it is by a kind of hyped-up, super-sexual version of Jane Austen’s courting rituals, is one Annie Hall would utterly fail to recognise. Woody Allen’s fans have been crying out for years for a “return to form” but it’s not him that’s changed: it’s New York.