Some notably touchy material receives erratic treatment in “Spanking the Monkey.” David O. Russell’s first feature, which won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up there by Fine Line, embellishes a tale of parent-son power plays and incest with good performances and intriguing psychological nuances, but falls victim to wildly varying tone and frustrating plot developments. Low-budgeter will generate controversy on both the moral and artistic levels, although probably not clamorously enough to make it into a significant B.O. entry.
Russell, who previously directed two shorts that were shown at Sundance, invests this story of a smart college kid forced to spend the summer with his bedridden mother with considerable personal feeling, which is for better and for worse. In fact, it has a lot in common with many autobiographical first novels, in the sense of working out certain psychological and emotional problems in a sometimes uncomfortable way, of distancing oneself from traumatic events by trying to transform them into art.
Although he is supposed to go to Washington, D.C., for a prestigious internship during his summer vacation from MIT, Ray Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) is told by his tyrannical, traveling father (Benjamin Hendrickson) that he’s going to have to stay home to play nurse to his mother (Alberta Watson), who has a fractured leg.
Initially, Mom is just as bossy as Dad has been, as she constantly criticizes and degrades her son, but the situation soon becomes ambiguous and queasy when Ray is required to carry his attractive mother to the toilet and shower, rub her down with creams and carry out other tasks rather beyond the physical norms of mother-son intimacy.
The only break Ray gets from Mom is walking the dog, in the process of which he meets high schooler Toni (Carla Gallo), with whom he develops a slow-cooking romance of sorts but of whom Mom naturally strongly disapproves.
Still hoping to get down to Washington, Ray engineers the arrival of Aunt Helen (Judette Jones) to look after Mom. Helen is too square to accept what now appears to be happening in Mom’s bedroom, since Ray has obviously spent the night there.
With the tone becoming more blackly comic, Ray, after telling Dad what’s going on, feels compelled to pull a Harold (as in Maude) but, failing this, takes his fury out on Mom herself while Dad tries to intervene.
The story is undoubtedly weird, but perhaps more so on paper than on the screen, since Russell and his actors have played it mostly straight in attempting to confer psychological validity on all the untoward developments.
Crucially, the steps in Ray’s relationship with his mother are all believable , thanks in large measure to the quietly observed performance by Davies and the quicksilver one by Watson. There are many moments when, based on the tension and vagueness in the air, relations between the two characters could go any which way, and the two thesps make even the most unlikely of these dramatic jumps relatively credible.
On the other hand, there are many times when the father’s, and even the mother’s, behavior is so absurd and dictatorial that one can’t believe that Ray doesn’t just tell them to go stuff it. While the central action is presented seriously, things on the periphery are caricatured and one-dimensional, which helps contribute to the widely roving tone.
The two main performances may be nuanced, but the visuals are not, as Russell doesn’t really know where to put the camera for maximum effect and control of his material. Images don’t proceed in a smooth, logical or attractive manner, creating erratic pacing and making plot developments seem more abrupt and indigestible than necessary.
Lensed in Pawling, N.Y., pic is clearly the work of a creative intelligence, but one that doesn’t yet have full command of the tools and fine points of the craft. As with many first novels, it’s sometimes necessary to get compulsive stuff out of one’s system before moving on to more mature work.