Remember when Kevin Spacey was awesome? Distant seem the days when Spacey could steal a movie from Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman with just a few minutes of screen time (Seven), or could hoodwink the audience for the duration of a movie with a canny performance (The Usual Suspects), or could turn a boss-from-hell into a repellant yet magnetic monster (Swimming With Sharks).
American Beauty has not aged well, but Spacey's portrayal of a disaffected man who rediscovers his zeal for life remains an engaging and caustic piece of acting. That was then. Now, there's Shrink, which Spacey produced and stars in, and is of a piece with K-Pax and Pay it Forward and Beyond the Sea and most of the other pictures the actor has made in the last decade - vanity projects that pass off bathos and phony sentimentality as profundity and emotion.
Spacey stars as Dr. Henry Carter, an L.A. shrink-to-the-stars who has developed a ferocious pot habit as a way of suppressing his grief over his wife's suicide. When he's not high as a kite - and even when he is - Carter goes through the motions of trying to help his patients, who include an emotionally distant teen (Keke Palmer) obsessed with movies, an agent (Dallas Roberts) with a panic-anxiety disorder, and a famous actress (Saffron Burrows) with a philandering husband.
What all these people really suffer from, however, is a terminal case of the self-pity blues. The more Shrink tries to get you invested in the emotional turmoil of its characters, the more you want to reach into the screen and shake them and tell them to get over themselves. About the only likable character is Carter's pot dealer, played by Jesse Plemons, who has the right idea when the doctor starts going all existential-angsty on him. "I just sell smoke, man," the kid says with a shrug. "It's not that serious."
Director Jonas Pate (a veteran of TV's Friday Night Lights and Chuck) keeps the camera bobbing just a hair in every shot, presumably aiming for the jittery urgency of The Shield. Instead, the trick just makes you want to find him a tripod. Pate also cast Gore Vidal and an unbilled Robin Williams in small supporting roles because yeah, that's not distracting and definitely won't take you out of the movie. There is even a scene in which a brooding character stares pensively at her own reflection in a mirror and then smashes it, which makes you want to call a permanent moratorium on scenes in which brooding characters stare pensively at themselves in a mirror and then smash it (looking in a mirror and saying "Are you talkin' to me?" is still OK, though).
Shrink was written by Thomas Moffett, whose idea of storytelling is to keep his characters sad and troubled until the scene in which suddenly they're not, and the syrupy music on the soundtrack swells. This is a movie for people who thought Crash was wise and profound, most of whom probably live in L.A. and know everything they know about life from watching movies.
I wish at least Spacey would start aiming a little higher than this kind of self-congratulatory, warm-and-fuzzy pablum. What happened to the smart, menacing, savvy actor who brought so much crackling energy and verve to every role - to the guy who made poetry out of the phrase "Go to lunch!" in Glengarry Glen Ross?
Shrink opens in South Florida on Friday July 31.