I’ve seen Ordinary People.
— Jemma (Keke Palmer)
Jemma (Keke Palmer) is tired. She’s tired of taking the school bus. She’s tired of forgetting to study for exams. She’s tired of teachers calling after her as she exist the classroom — because she just can’t listen to another word about what the word “Cherokee” means. Jemma’s like a lot of kids in high school, except for one thing. She’s also tired of missing her mother, who killed herself. Every afternoon she looks at a note her mother left, still sealed in an envelope marked with Jemma’s name. And every afternoon she can’t open it.
Jemma’s one of an assemblage of damaged souls in Shrink, another one of those LA’s-a-mighty-small-microcosm-of-the-world pictures. Jemma is also the film’s black character, as well as its only teenager. And because she is wise beyond her years, soft-spoken, and independent-minded, she will end up delivering the most profound lesson for the extremely screwed up adults who surround her. Of these, the one she spends the most time with is Henry (Kevin Spacey), the titular doctor whom she must see after she slams her fist through a mirror in the girls’ room at school. Her principal thinks maybe she needs to “talk to someone” and his father Robert (Robert Loggia), a shrink too, passes her off to his son.
On its face, Robert’s decision is a terrible one. It may be premised on the belief that his son is — or was — a terrific therapist and has something of value to offer this bright and understandably unhappy child. It’s most obviously premised on another assumption, however, that working with this girl will help Henry, who is also struggling with the suicide of a loved one, that is, his wife. The fact that the movie begins with a formal intervention arranged for Henry (who is self-medicating himself into smoky abjection) and attended by Robert is not a good sign, for father or son. Neither is it promising for Jemma, who needs more than anything to meet an adult she can trust not to blow up her world.
Nevertheless, in the gimmicky domain of Hollywood screenwriting, the pairing of Henry and Jemma passes for a kind of romantic logic, in the sense that these two will heal one another — no matter that he reeks of weed or she anticipates pretty much every psych 101 chestnut he disgorges. The film is rife with other romances too, some erotic and most not. He’s high veritably every minute — with on-call help from his dealer, Jesus (Jesse Plemons), who meets him in any parking lot or carwash, even the occasional driving range, outfitted with a briefcase full of colorfully monikered smoke (“Christmas in Vietnam,” Jesus warns, is some “break glass in case of emergency type shit”).
For all his outrageous time-outs (he smokes in the back lot behind his office building, in the bathroom at a pediatrician’s office), Henry has been managing a busy schedule, owing to the fact that his book, Happiness Now is a bestseller. He treats two guys at either end of the damaged male celebrity age spectrum, ragingly self-destructive Irish movie star Shamus (Jack Huston) and terminally immature alcoholic Jack (Robin Williams) (“In my day, I balled a lot of chicks!”), as well as an actress deemed over the hill at 27, Kate (Saffron Burrows). Her slipping sense-of-self isn’t helped by her utterly banal husband, Evan (Joel Gretsch) — so clichéd that he has to ask what “narcissist” means after he denies being one — or by the fact she’s enabling her idiot husband.
In Hollywood, of course, everyone enables and is enabled: Shamus, for one, is both coddled and bullied by his anal-neurotic-desperate agent Patrick (Dallas Roberts), who starts his own session with Henry by listing his achievements (black belt in taekwondo, pilot’s license, fear of getting “ball cancer” from his cell phone). Patrick, in turn, is enabled by his hyper-organized and incredibly nice assistant Daisy (Pell James), who finds it in her heart — and her schedule — to read a script by part-time valet parker and aspiring screenwriter Jeremy (Mark Webber).
As all of Shrink‘s seemingly disparate stories begin to fall too cleverly into each other, it’s easy to be distracted by some fine performances, especially by Palmer, who maintains an effectively low volume amid the ambient emotive noise. In a town based on the idea that art equals commerce, she appreciates the art part, and misses especially the fact that her mother used to see and love movies with her. The movies she prefers (The Graduate) serve as a sort of shorthand for Jemma’s moral balance and good taste, but they also remind you of today’s movies’ shabbiness, their resort to cheap and lazy business like enlisting Gore Vidal to play a talk show host. Specifically and perfectly, he’s the host on the show where Henry “goes crazy,” berating his own book and the numbskulls who buy it, and not incidentally, revealing his mediated pain to Jemma, generous to the last. With Vidal looking aghast and Jemma looking sage, Henry can only look forgiven, after all.