The story of Mark O’Brien is a phenomenal one of true emotional resonance and strength. A journalist, essayist, and poet based in California, O’Brien spent much of his life condemned to an iron lung.
And then, at the age of 38, O’Brien pursued the services of a sex surrogate named Cheryl Cohen-Greene in hopes of finally losing his virginity. Judd Apatow and Steve Carell have nothing on the poignancy of this true-life, middle-aged virgin.
“The Sessions,” an unfortunately bland retelling of this amazing story, is something that feels more like a letdown than a film worthy of O’Brien’s interesting, heartfelt, humorous, and horny legacy. Often enough, it strikes the right chords but these melodies are limited primarily to a select few moments that shine above the rest, and it is a film carried mostly by a remarkable performance from very talented actor John Hawkes as O’Brien.
It’s a simple film limited mostly to the set pieces of a bedroom and a church — the former capturing the “sessions” between O’Brien and his sex surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt), to the candid, habitually hilarious conversations between O’Brien and his priest, Father Brendan (William H. Macy).
Macy is a carefree force on screen, and the dialogue between him and Hawkes offers some of the movie’s best moments — finding awkward hilarity in a disabled man frankly discussing his “full penetration” with a man of God. I could watch an entire film consisting solely of the actor’s uproarious reaction shots. If only Macy wasn’t out-acted by his implausible mane of hair that would be nonexistent atop a priest’s head in the ’80s era this film is set.
The rest of the film, and unfortunately so, is riddled with a lack of momentum and a tediousness as frank as the movie’s sexuality. I was constantly in awe of Hawkes’s performance, and constantly in agony over Helen Hunt’s. I know 5-year-olds with more accurate Boston accents than the one Hunt painfully tries to recreate in every line that comes from her character’s mouth.