At one point in “Accidental Love,” the movie’s crusading heroine flips on a TV and catches a glimpse of George A. Romero’s seminal 1968 zombie opus “Night of the Living Dead.” And, like one of Romero’s own restless undead, this mirthless, misshapen social satire cum romantic comedy has managed to crawl out of the early grave to which it was consigned in 2008, back when its title was “Nailed” and its director was David O. Russell. Pieced together by unknown parties after years stuck in litigation (resulting from the bankruptcy of financier David Bergetsin’s Capitol Films), “Accidental Love” turns out to be no “Margaret”-style diamond-in-the-rough, but merely a not-particularly-interesting curio from the low ebb of a great director’s career. Russell (credited here as Stephen Greene), original producers Doug Wick and Lucy Fisher, and the starry ensemble cast have understandably kept their distance from this opportunistic cash-grab release, out now on VOD, with limited theatrical to follow on March 20.
If nothing else, “Accidental Love” makes it even more obvious just how much “The Fighter” represented, for Russell, a full system reset of his career, which had already sustained significant blows from the commercial failure of 2004’s “I Heart Huckabees” and from the widely circulated viral videos of the director’s bullying/erratic on-set behavior. Certainly, there are echoes of both Russell’s earlier “Flirting With Disaster” and “Three Kings” in “Accidental Love’s” efforts to meld screwball farce with au courant politics (circa seven years ago). But the disparate tones never gel, and the movie has an airless, stop-and-go feel, as if a studio-audience laugh track were intended but never inserted. There may have been a better version of the movie to be cut from the footage Russell shot, but much better? Doubtful.
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Indeed, it would be tempting to say that “Accidental Love” is about as funny as a nailgun to the head, were that very act of hardware mayhem not the inciting incident that sets the movie’s plot in motion. (The screenplay is credited to Kristin Gore — daughter of Al — Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser, very loosely based on Gore’s 2004 novel “Sammy’s Hill.”) We are somewhere in small-town, Norman Rockwell-ish Indiana, where swoon-inducing state trooper Scott (James Marsden) is about to pop the question to his longtime g.f., Alice (Jessica Biel), a roller-skating waitress at the local retro-’50s drive-in. But fate intervenes when a worker doing repairs at the tony Fancy Gondola restaurant tumbles from a ladder and right onto Alice’s noggin — a scene reportedly left unfinished at the time of the production’s shutdown, and conspicuously cobbled together from inadequate footage here.
Alice is already on the ER operating table (where Bill Hader cameos as a surgeon) when word arrives that, because she’s uninsured, the surgery will have to wait … indefinitely, unless Alice’s parents (Beverly D’Angelo and Steve Boles) can pony up $150,000 to pay the bill. So, in this pre-Obamacare America, Alice is sent on her way with the errant nail firmly in place, and a warning of possible side effects ranging from “a lifetime of heavy drooling” to sudden mood swings and the loss of sexual inhibition. Whatever is a girl in such a predicament to do? Why, call on her local Congressman, of course — although not before an ill-advised stab at home surgery, supervised by a sloshed veterinarian (Kirstie Alley, whose name is misspelled in the end credits).
It’s not just Romero’s zombies that Alice sees on her TV screen; somewhere in the flip of channels, she catches a glimpse of Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), a freshman Congressman with a milk-fed smile and a surfeit of can-do attitude. And with that, Alice sets off down the yellow-brick road to Capitol Hill, with her own uninsured scarecrow and tin man in tow — in this case, a defrocked priest (Kurt Fuller) with a permanent, pharmaceutically enhanced erection, and an ex-bodybuilder (Tracy Morgan) with a collapsed anus.
Those jokes have the air of a mid-level college humor magazine, but they’re still preferable to what happens once the movie finally makes it to D.C., where it turns into a threadbare skewering of Beltway politics-as-usual. Gyllenhaal gives one of his big, tic-y, look-at-me performances here — a mildly less sociopathic version of “Nightcrawler’s” Louis Bloom — but at least he seems happy to be there. That’s more than can be said for Catherine Keener, who sneers her way through a few scenes as a careerist House Whip with dreams of building a military base on the moon, and James Brolin (who replaced James Caan during production) as a Speaker of the House who’s on hand mainly to choke on a cookie and die.
The potshots fly in all directions — at politicians who care more about their Q scores than about John Q. Public; at journalists who become willing pawns in their propaganda machine; and at an electorate gullible enough to fall for it all. Even if “Accidental Love” had come out years ago, before “Veep” and “In the Loop” and “House of Cards,” it still would have seemed well past its sell-by date.
As with any such A-list train wreck — and this is certainly one of the biggest since Warren Beatty’s “Town and Country” in 2001 — you watch “Accidental Love” in a state of forensic investigation, foraging for clues as to what attracted so much talent to such a misbegotten enterprise in the first place. Probably Russell (who officially quit the film in 2010), a devotee of Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies, was drawn in by the central idea of a small-town rube who manages to capture the national spotlight and turn big business/politics on its ear — the kind of premise directors like Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Richard Quine mined for gold more than once in their careers.
He clearly saw something in Biel, too, who surrenders to the role with the kind of comic recklessness Russell favors in his leading ladies. She’s game for whatever the movie throws at her (including, in one particularly daffy conceit, speaking impromptu Portuguese). And there is one very fine, inimitably Russell-ian moment here, in which Alice and Howard fall impulsively into each other’s arms and, as they cavort wildly on his office floor, the camera whirs about in circular, waist-high pans, the frame occasionally bisected by disembodied extremities all akimbo. But when the camera stops spinning, the movie sinks back into its irredeemable funk. Even the end-credits dance-off and blooper reel are acutely joyless.