Review: Even With All That Sex, ‘Shame’ Will Leave You Unsatisfied

Yes, a naked Michael Fassbender measures up; Steve McQueen’s sophomore feature, less so


Shame” is the movie in which Michael Fassbender gets naked and lets it all hang out.

And yes, he, ahem, measures up impressively. The movie, less so.

Co-written and directed by British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (“Hunger”), this is an undernourished drama likely to leave most viewers muttering a puzzled “huh?” as they exit the theater.

Like “American Gigolo,” a film it brings to mind because both feature chicly-dressed, handsome male protagonists who are quick to doff their expensive wardrobes, “Shame” is out to show us that having lots of anonymous sex can still leave one feeling empty and unfulfilled.

Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) lives alone in a tastefully but minimally furnished Manhattan apartment and works at a job — we’re never quite sure what it is he does, though it seems to involve advertising, marketing or technology — in a cubicle in an office tower.

He’s not exactly a model employee, arriving at work late because he was chasing after a woman he cruised on the subway, surfing porn on his office computer, and making frequent visits to the office john to find self-satisfaction. During his off-hours, when not out picking up women, he’s home viewing on-line sex sites or having prostitutes make house calls. 

Brandon is a sex addict. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up wanting temporarily to stay with him, he is less than happy. Her being in his apartment crimps his hedonistic (and onanistic)  life style.

“Shame’s” plot, such as it is, involves the slow, and frustratingly only partial revelation, of the reason behind the tensions in the siblings’ relationship and why Brandon is the way he is. This is a movie that wants us to believe that there’s more going on than it will tell us, but it’s all so understated and elliptical that it’s like a pencil outline of a sketch which no one bothered to color  in.  

The film is exceedingly handsome looking, showing a New York that’s all hard edges, neon and dark, wet streets. McQueen’s shots are all as carefully and tastefully composed as Brandon’s outfits, making this a movie better seen than mulled over.

Fassbender, in his fourth major role of the year (on top of leads in “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men: First Class” and “A Dangerous Method”), continues to impress as a leading man of range and intensity. And the guy is seriously easy on the eyes.

Mulligan, as Brandon’s fragile sister, convincingly projects a battered vulnerability. Her character is supposed to be a professional singer who, at a swanky nightclub, warbles a prolonged, wobbly, excessively mournful version of  “New York, New York.” This would be an excellent scene during which to go to the snack bar and refill your popcorn cup.