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Compulsive Sexuality’s Lighter Side

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A thousand steps of self-absorption before the final, hasty twelve

Caveh Zahedi has struggled to make four features in 15 years. With “I Am a Sex Addict,” he’s inadvertently stumbled onto something trendy. This film combines the voyeurism of reality TV with the comedy of embarrassment purveyed by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Ricky Gervais on “The Office” and “Extras.”

The film’s central character is Zahedi, who plays himself. With “I Am a Sex Addict,” Zahedi calls to mind the early work of Albert Brooks, whose first three films—“Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” and “Lost in America”—are notable for their unrelenting self-laceration. In “Modern Romance,” his character starts out seeming somewhat neurotic and looks like a sociopath by the end. Starting with his fourth film, “Defending Your Life,” Brooks started finding hope for his characters, and his work suffered for it.

Zahedi shows himself in numerous cringe-inducing situations, as when he goes around to every Los Angeles massage parlor he can find, groping receptioni­sts’ breasts. Nevertheless, “I Am a Sex Addict” is an ode to recovery and 12-step groups. For all its wit, the film is far more compelling when exploring Zahedi’s problems rather than his redemption.

“I Am a Sex Addict” begins at Zahedi’s third wedding. He recounts the problems that led to the collapse of his first two marriages. However, the film adopts a digressive style, incorporating elements of documentary that allows for direct address to the audience. While in an open relationship at Yale, he met Caroline (Rebecca Lord), a French woman who needed a green card, and started seeing her. Zahedi split up with his other girlfriend, married Caroline, and moved to Paris. There, he began sleeping with prostitutes. This quickly became a compulsion, one that threatened his relationship with Caroline. He tried many means to defuse his fetish, but nothing really worked. After breaking up with Caroline, he had two other serious relationships, but they, too, were eventually sabotaged by his actions.

Zahedi’s style adopts the rhythms of addiction. Characters often repeat lines from his voice-over immediately after he says them. He shows the passage of time by filming actors in the same position but wearing different clothes. He also calls the film’s relation to reality into question. Zahedi shows stills and home movies of the women his characters are based on and offers information about the actors’ lives. Like her character, one has a drinking problem. He only learned Caroline has appeared in porn when he found her picture on a website after filming her performance; she told him she was a makeup artist.

Why would someone make a film as personal and intimate as “I Am a Sex Addict”? Zahedi doesn’t make it an easy question to answer. He’s both self-deprecating and self-serving. Even at his worst, he’s full of rationalizations. While these are largely full of crap—and he’s self-aware enough to know that—he always seems sincere. The first two-thirds of “I Am a Sex Addict” play like a Brooks film, with the telling difference that Zahedi is trying to charm the audience; in that, he’s closer to Woody Allen. He’s pretty good at it; the film’s very funny. His exhibitionism is deliberately uncomfortable, but there’s a large, disquieting dose of narcissism underneath it. Zahedi seems addicted to self-absorption as much as sex, an obsession that doesn’t stop when he attends Sex Addicts Anonymous meetings.

He eventually comes to an epiphany on an airplane after a disastrous trip to Europe with an alcoholic girlfriend—he’s an addict, not a mere fetishist. “Sex Addict” spends 90% of its running time detailing his screw-ups in excruciating detail, but it devotes little time to his present-day happiness. Its conclusion is disappointing, in large part because it never quite succeeds in explaining what’s so magical about 12-step groups or how exactly one breaks a sexual compulsion’s spell. To its credit, there’s no moralizing about the evils of porn or non-monogamous relationships. Its many sex scenes are unerotic without going to the ugly extremes of Tsai Ming-liang’s “The Wayward Cloud,” or Carlos Reygadas’ “Battle In Heaven.” Genitalia and penetration are hidden behind a black box, which may be a joke.

“I Am a Sex Addict” becomes a lot less convincing as drama when Zahedi tries to turn his life around. Its ending is horribly rushed—his second marriage receives about 30 seconds of screen time. The use of documentary techniques makes one wonder what a film depicting the same relationships, made by Zahedi’s ex-girlfriends and wives, would be like. Even if he’s anything but unwilling to criticize himself, there’s something unsettling about the way he uses actors to speak for a group of real people whose photos he flashes on-screen. Like Allen at his worst—as in “Deconstruc­ting Harry”—“Sex Addict” purports to offer a serious self-examination, but can’t break out from its creator’s overwhelming fantasy life.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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