In this film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight Films, Michael Fassbender portrays Brandon in a scene from "Shame." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Films, Abbot Genser)

In this film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight Films, Michael Fassbender portrays Brandon in a scene from "Shame." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Films, Abbot Genser)


In this film publicity image released by Fox Searchlight Films, actress Carey Mulligan portrays Sissy in a scene from "Shame." (AP Photo/Fox Searchlight Films, Abbot Genser)



3 stars out of 4

In 1990, the MPAA replaced its taboo "X" rating with "NC-17" in the hopes that meaningful "art" films would no longer be perceived as pornography by the masses. In a way, it worked. Mainstream studios (actually their umbrella boutique offshoots) became less skittish about releasing such films which still had a certain limited box-office return. Most of the time, they simply opt for the nebulous and vague "NR" (not rated) instead and fare slightly better.

Much like "Lust, Caution" and "Last Tango in Paris," "Shame" is an "NC-17" film that contains frank (but not all that graphic) sexual situations that play an integral part in a decidedly downbeat story. What differentiates "Shame" from all other "NC-17" films is with its depiction of sexual addiction -- a supposed mental illness that has little to do with actual sex.

In more ways than it might have intended the film has a lot in common with "American Psycho" starring Christian Bale. Both movies are set in Manhattan and feature lead male characters that are outwardly handsome, charming, obsessively hygienic, successful and irresistible to most women. They say little but speak volumes with a type of body language that can neither be taught nor learned. It's imbedded in their DNA.

Unlike Bale's character, Brandon (Michael Fassbender, who could easily pass as Bale's brother) isn't a serial killer but rather a serial "dater." Even though the film opens with him already in rapid decline, we're pretty sure Brandon was once one of those thrill-of-the-chase types: seduce-conquer-split; but even that doesn't do it for him anymore. He now does one of four things: wait for them to approach him (which is often), play head games with strangers on trains, dabble with fire by dating co-workers or go the route of interactive Internet porn.

Never once do we get the impression Brandon is having anything resembling fun or even getting a fleeting hunt rush. He has sex the way most people get dressed. He's incredibly unhappy and masking it is growing ever more difficult.

Brandon's stale but satisfactory routine gets thrown way off-kilter with the unexpected arrival of his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, "An Education"), a talented but down on her luck lounge singer in the throws of a messy romantic break-up. Unlike her brother, Sissy wears her heart on her sleeve and begs Brandon to let her regroup at his place for a while. Not a total cad, Brandon obliges her but makes it clear he's not pleased and will insist on very clear boundaries.

At this point we're about a third of the way through the 90 or so minute movie and up to now director Steve McQueen has done a near prefect job with his visual shorthand and a bare-bones amount of dialogue. He's given us two captivating, highly dysfunctional and diametrically opposed characters and has a myriad of possible narrative paths he can explore.

Then McQueen starts to spend more time with scenes than he should. He has Sissy sing a complete, ultra-slow, six minute version of "New York, New York" -- one that drains the song of all of its joy and turns it into a quasi-dirge. A dinner scene with Brandon and a potential mate goes nowhere and is top-heavy with meaningless small talk. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan are just killing time until they can get around to a mostly effective third act. Taking place in a single night and presented out of sequence, the final act shows both leads hitting rock bottom and brings back the welcomed economic narrative.

The early Oscar buzz for both Fassbender (in one of his four 2011 lead roles) and Mulligan is fully deserving and the movie yields more than enough stand-alone moments to make it a worthwhile investment of your time and money, yet it doesn't quite go the distance. The final scenes are visceral but also frustratingly ambiguous. Has either of the leads had an epiphany or turned a corner? We're not sure. And that might be the filmmakers' ultimate pint.

Are sexual/romantic obsessions or psychosis' ever cured or do they just float back and forth in range from livable to life-threatening? Whatever the answer (and there really is no universal answer) the filmmakers toss the job of deciding back to the viewer. (Fox Searchlight)