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COUCH POTATO: Kevin Spacey's psychiatrist absorbs the phobias and complaints of his high-profile patients in 'Shrink.'

The Doctor Is Sick

'Shrink' makes us wonder: Aren't people paid to listen to these complaints?

By Richard von Busack

CALL ME a buzzsquelcher, but Jonas Pate's Crash-y, tag-team, only-connect, only-in-L.A. drama draws its moral lines so heavily you can taste the chalk dust flying off them. Shrink begins solidly, with world-weary psychiatrist Dr. Henry Carter (Kevin Spacey) all dogfaced from sleeplessness and partaking much of the evil herb. Once he was a psychiatrist to the stars and author of a book called Stop Feeling Sad; now he is a physician who needs to heal himself.

The doctor has a roster of clients, a real workload: Kate (Saffron Burrows) and Evan (Joel Gretsch), a famous movie star/rock-star couple with child, are now on the verge of splitting. This couple, referred to as "Katevan" in the tabloids, are supposed to be as famous as Brangelina. Shamus (Jack Huston, John's grandson) is supposed to be Colin Farrell, an out-of-control Irish movie star unhappy with his work. Robin Williams is Jack Holden, an aging movie star who quips that he needs to be sent to "Cockenders" for his adulterous tendencies, for which he self-medicates with booze.

Want more? Too bad, here they come: Dallas Roberts is Carter's patient Patrick, a neurotic asshole of a motion picture executive, the Jay Mohr type. New patients include Jeremy, who was the godson of Carter's father--a lawn-mowing nobody in this star-studded scheme, with hopes of writing a script someday. Though he's supposed to be joe average, Mark Webber plays Jeremy as if he had the lead role in a Sam Rockwell biopic. Lastly, working-class African-American girl Jemma (Keke Palmer) is seeing Dr. Carter pro bono for sessions of what seems like that "movie therapy" you've read so much about. Jemma won't talk to the doc about her problems, or the reason she has a cast on her arm from having tried to knock some sense into the mirror in her high school bathroom. So they go to the films together.

Once upon a time, the man who linked high- and low-lives in L.A. was a private eye. Spacey's sardonicism would make a great late-period Phillip Marlowe (in a remake of The Little Sister, say). Like Marlowe, Carter has a fateful mystery of his own to solve. And, as in the case of Raymond Chandler's mysteries, the real killer is the city of Los Angeles itself. The dry, coyote-haunted hills, the smoggy sunrises and the affably brutal way people treat each other is the background for this comedy-drama. (Seeing Jack Holden in Carter's lobby, Jemma says, "Are you who I think you are? You ought to make better movies.") Taking up the bum's life--as Carter does, smoking herb in the parking lot--is a natural reaction to all that frenzied ambition. But Pate's life-affirming, everything-to-all-people script keeps introducing new characters until, at the end, he's forced to act with all the aplomb of a man herding cats.

Scripter Thomas Moffett insists that the act of scriptwriting is essential to healing, that everyone has a good script in them. Likewise, Shrink insists that everyone in L.A. is in the Industry whether they know it or not. Pate sets some of the action at the Los Feliz Theater, the anchor of a mini-neighborhood notorious as a scriptwriter's hangout. The question remains, then, why do all the movie references seem 20 years old? When Carter reminds Jemma she doesn't have to be crazy to see a shrink, Jemma responds, "I know, I've seen Ordinary People." Why would a 16-year-old of today have seen Ordinary People unless she got keelhauled through it in Scriptwriting 101 class? Yes, there's wit in Shrink; playing a TV chat show host, Gore Vidal pronounces the word "suicide" as if it were the name of a fine wine. Hard to imagine why a man that smart would have been so ill informed about his guest, though. Spacey's look of groggy melancholy is a reliable getter of laughs, and one short scene of Saffron Burrows sitting and eating ice cream makes up for a lot of heavy life affirmation in this tangled, tangled web Pate weaves.

Movie Times SHRINK (R; 110 min.), directed by Jonas Pate, written by Thomas Moffett, photographed by Lukas Ettlin and starring Kevin Spacey, Mark Webber and Gore Vidal, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon.

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