Winner of the Snakes on a Plane Award for most forthright title, Caveh Zahedi's fictionalized documentary I Am a Sex Addict has come to the big screen after fifteen years of production, setbacks, disasters and difficulties. The passage of time hasn't changed the tense of the title -- Zahedi may be recovered for years, but he's still got impossibly conflicted feelings and desires about sex -- and in many ways the slow crawl to the finish line enabled I Am a Sex Addict to have a sweep and scope that a lot of modern navel-gazing self-made films lack.
As a subject (or leading man – the film straddles the line between the real and the re-created), Zahedi's a pretty unlikely figure: Bold but bashful, larger-than-life but small of stature, smart enough to be incredibly aware of how stupid many of his actions are. Those dichotomies run throughout the film, making I Am a Sex Addict repellent-yet-riveting: You don't want to watch Zahedi open up the aperture of the camera and spill his guts onto the frame , but he's so open -- and fascinating, and frank about his self-destruction and majestically pathetic -- that you can't help but watch. Of course, the fact that Zahedi's got a slow-fuse, deadpan delivery that makes him look like a neurotic Buster Keaton doesn't hurt his watchability. …
Zahedi's film essentially takes his own life, skins it, pins it to the table with a careful eye and then cuts directly to the meat of the matter; it's less a documentary than it is a dissection. What's worthy of note is that not only is the knifework on display elegant, but it's also good humored -- and never applied unnecessarily to bystanders. Zahedi's obsession with sex with prostitutes -- and his linked obsessive need to inform his current partners that he'd been having sex with prostitutes -- made two marriages and several relationships blow up, but in the scenes where Zahedi has actresses play the parts of his past lovers, the tone and tenor of the film is kind to the people who had the misfortune to brush up against him while he was damaged; to paraphrase Shakespeare's Lear, Zahedi is a man more sinning than sinned against, and I Am a Sex Addict is less a defense of what he did than a deposition detailing it.
Before the film starts to sound too Oprah-riffic, or part and parcel of the confessional culture we've been bombarded with too much as of late, it should also be borne in mind that I Am a Sex Addict is funny. In fact, it's hilarious. One example comes in the deliberate shamelessness of Zahedi explaining he doesn't have the budget to shoot in France so is making do with San Francisco … as a man bearing baguettes and wearing a beret saunters into the frame. Another is when Zahedi is about to shoot a scene with a French actress playing one of his old relationships … and finds her picture on an Escort Services website; Zahedi explains this revelation to the camera in hushed tones, and you can't tell if he's freaked out or turned on.
But there's real feeling here, too -- especially as it dawns on you that all the present-day framing sequences are being shot by Zahedi and his crew on the day of his wedding. Zahedi, in a tuxedo, distracted and nervous but focused on his film, finishes relating his past as a sex addict and walks down the aisle towards his future -- and a bride he's spent the past seven years with after various 12-step programs enabled him to change his life.
I'm not usually a fan of diary-documentaries; having bad stuff happen to you and access to a camera does not necessarily mean you've got the skills to craft a compelling story with your reminisces and your resources. But Zahedi's film is different; it's so carefully, deliberately funny that all its artificial recreations bring Zahedi's reality home to us, and so unblinkingly, unsentimentally blunt that the facts of the matter only make us appreciate the guts Zahedi must have to bring his past to the screen. (A psychiatrist might make something of Zahedi's past need to confess his sexual transgressions to his lovers and how that's now being played out on a much larger scale, but I'm not a psychiatrist.)
In fact, I Am a Sex Addict would probably make a good double-bill with last year's The 40-Year-Old-Virgin; both are about how screwy societal attitudes around sex really are. We're told that sex is special and a part of love and meaningless without feeling; we're also told that it's nothing much, a commodity to be bought and sold, an itch to be scratched. I Am a Sex Addict explores that gulf through the eyes of someone who has suffered exploring the territory … and who never, ever forgets that the other people in his story are real human beings who suffered at his hands, as well. I Am a Sex Addict may have all the tell-tale signs of a production where passion wasn't matched by budgeting -- wildly varying film stocks, occasionally muffled sound -- but it's the most moving, insightful and funny confessional personal journey the movies have given us in a long, long time.