April 2, 2008

Spanking the Monkey (1994)
Grade: 82/100

Director: David O. Russell
Stars: Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson, Carla Gallo

What it's about. Ray (Jeremy Davies) is a medical student with a bright future and a pending internship. He returns home for a weekend, only to find out that his hottie mother Susan (Alberta Watson) has just broken her leg and requires home care, which he is expected to provide. There's no one else at home, since Ray's father Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson) is a travelling salesman.

The internship is out of the question. Now, Ray is stuck at home, caring for his lonely mother, who has developed a sexual interest in him. Ray's sole escapes from the troubled household are his walks with the dog, which put him in the path of bored and confused teenager Toni (Carla Gallo). Practically against his will, Ray begins a relationship with Toni, but this leads primarily to further frustration.

How others will see it. Spanking the Monkey is mildly notorious in film circles for three reasons. 1) it was the first feature for writer/director David O. Russell, who went on to mainstream success with Three Kings (1999). 2) it was made for $80,000, which in 1994 dollars is less than it would have cost to have Julia Roberts wave to the camera. 3) the story involves the taboo subject of incest. Most incest movies are father-daughter, an exercise in power and beauty. This one, though, is mother-son, and the dynamics are loneliness and access.

How I felt about it. Spanking the Monkey is the rare excellent film that is nearly impossible to watch. Many scenes are unpleasant, yet it is rewarding in that it shows one way things can go wrong within a family. Loneliness, empathy, guilt, and lust become a powerful cocktail that only leads to misery. The family is disfunctional, and Ray wisely eventually takes what looks to be his only viable option. He runs away from home.

For the producers, it was a problem in marketing. What do you do with a rewarding movie that revolts much of its potential audience? Solution: sell it as a hip black comedy. Never mind that is humor is ironic and bitter. This is not like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. The characters are not exaggerated. It is more like a train wreck watched from the inside in agonizingly slow motion.

Ray is legally an adult. That makes his actions with his mother consensual. But it doesn't make them any more pleasant. Susan is highly intelligent and educated. She knows what she is doing, yet feels no guilt. Her marriage to Tom is loveless, she is bored out of her mind, and Ray is interesting and close at hand. Ray is also bored, completely frustrated, and is old enough to sympathize with his mother's loneliness. But unlike her, he is disgusted by their changed relationship. And if it continues, it will destroy the family.

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