Jake (Chris Eigeman) is “seeing someone.” Specifically, as he doesn’t quite confess to his ex, Julia (Stephanie March), he’s seeing a therapist. As he sees that Julia is contented and engaged, Jake is loathe to tell her too much about his ongoing lack of progress on the dating front. And so he pretends to be happy for her—at which point Julia invites him to a party (if he promises “to behave”) and leaves him alone and forlorn on the sidewalk.
In the very next scene in The Treatment, Jake arrives late for an appointment with his therapist, the Argentine-born Freudian analyst Ernesto Morales (Ian Holm). The doctor harrumphs that he’s not invested in their work together or his own life. “You make from the world a banal comedy in which you are the spectator,” opines Morales. At which point Jake becomes sardonic yet again, blaming his lack of progress on the therapeutic strategy: “All we do is discuss my manners and my mother,” he says. She happens to be dead, which is the film’s shorthand for Jake’s “issues”—fear of abandonment and commitment—as well as his strained relationship with his once intimidating physician-father Arnold (Harris Yulin), now ailing and sad.
Then Jake mentions Julia. Aha, asserts Morales, triumphant: “At last, the penis has entered the vagina.”
Okay, he’s Freudian. And okay, the film, which won the Best Made in New York Narrative Feature Award at Tribeca in 2006, is based on Daniel Menaker’s 1998 novel. Still, its knotty obsessiveness is quickly tedious. This even as it plainly reflects Jake’s self-involvement, for the treatment, such as it is, occurs in his mind. This when he isn’t participating in what look to be real-life activities, like answering questions from his prep school students—though even these sessions appear to be shaped to his interests.
Here too, Jake contends with complaints: “Why did Chekhov have write about such losers?” asks one pale-faced boy. When another suggests the protagonist just take a Prozac and “get on with it,” Jake brightens, displaying a vague contempt. In an effort to encourage the kiddies to appreciate ambiguity and “social responsibility,” he snarks that they’ve discovered a “whole new category of literature that has been made irrelevant by pharmacology. We could start with Moby Dick: give Ahab a Zoloft take the edge off.” The kids think he’s kidding, but he’s mostly resentful. How come these kids don’t suffer as he does? Smug, witty, and depressed, Jake is getting harder to like. Funny, because the point he’s making for his students is exactly that: the aim of great art is to solicit your sympathy for someone who seems to be unlike you.
Just as you’re questioning your own capacity for sympathy, the best reason to keep watching The Treatment shows up: Famke Janssen as Allegra, mother of a student at Jake’s school and wholly unsuitable love interest. Wealthy and recently widowed, she’s at least as damaged as Jake, and just slightly less manipulative. At least, that’s the way she appears to Jake, who can’t get out of his own way as he imagines, first, the perfect long-term relationship with the lovely Allegra and her about-to-be-adopted kids, and second, that she’s too good to be true.
As he worries, Jake has repeated conversations with Morales, who starts popping up in spaces outside his office, say, a bathroom at the school, just before Jake is supposed to give a speech. Muttering over the sink, Jake rejects the idea that Allegra is “interested” in him: “New York is full of people with lousy boundaries,” he moans. Case in point: Morales. The film doesn’t clarify how and when he learns about Jake’s life. Apparently surprised to hear that Allegra is a widow, he asks his patient, “Will you pursue the healthy sexual interest between you and this dowager or have you already lost interest because she is available?”
We might guess that the stilted phrasing, “the healthy relationship,” marks a joke. For as soon as Jake does embark on a sexual relationship, the doctor makes exactly the opposite case, warning Jake against “this ill-advised emotional involvement” with Allegra, which just about guarantees it’s a good idea. Jake tries so hard to anticipate what his father, his doctor, and Allegra want that he doesn’t admit to his own feigning and carping. While the movie lays out most all of Jake’s lapses and desires as he enumerates them, it also measures him against other, wearisome personalities. While this theoretically makes Jake relatively “sympathetic,” he remains an erudite whiner. When Jake is literally trying to push Morales into a closet in order to “pursue the healthy sexual relationship,” it appears the film has opened up a whole other subject—one it doesn’t pursue at all.