Spanking the Monkey (1994) / Drama-Comedy

MPAA Rated: Unrated, but undoubtedly would be R for strong sexuality involving teens, thematic material, and language
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson, Benjamin Hendrickson, Carla Gallo, Judette Jones, Richard Husson
Director: David O. Russell
Screenplay: David O. Russell

Review published December 23, 2013

Spanking the Monkey will probably be most notable for today's viewers for being the first feature film to be written and directed by future Academy Award-winning auteur David O. Russell (Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings). In addition to its provocatively euphemistic title, it's also of note for the controversial central storyline involving the incestuous feelings that emerge between a bored, unhappy and injured housewife and her impressionable college-age son.

Jeremy Davies (Twister, Saving Private Ryan), who was offered the role after being spotted in a Subaru Impreza commercial, plays that MIT pre-med student, Raymond Aibelli, who finds himself having to stay at his childhood home in Connecticut a lot longer than he bargained for when his hot-headed salesman father Tom (Hendrickson, Consenting Adults) forces him to attend to his ailing mother, rather than going to Washington D.C. to intern with the office of the Surgeon General for the summer. Ray must assist his mother Susan (Watson, The Sweet Hereafter), who is suffering from a broken leg and depression, to go to the restroom, take a shower, and rub lotion on her aches, though the lack of sexual activity (the dog seems to have a knack for interrupting his only moments alone -- why he doesn't try anywhere else in this house while his mother can't get up from bed is anyone's guess) hasn't helped take his mind off of the nearly naked woman who is in front of him every day, confusing his emotions. His confusion is exacerbated further when a younger local high school student named Toni (Gallo, MI3) begins to flirt with him, while the friends he left behind in the small town also get him into their own brand of trouble.

Spanking the Monkey reminds me of The Graduate, but with the mother in the Mrs. Robinson role. While the subject matter is taboo, Russell isn't trying to push buttons of sensationalism or drum up publicity for his film through sheer controversy. It's not an easy film to describe. Some might see the film as a straight drama, while others will view it as a black comedy. Either way, Russell succeeds in delivering a thoughtful film that, while some may be turned off by the subject matter, still commands attention for Russell's strong emphasis on characters and their understated interactions.

Davies delivers a fine performance as Ray, who is introverted and vulnerable, and clearly unable to handle the variety of emotions and frustrations that continue to rear their ugly head, eventually threatening to come to a boiling point as his hopes and dreams in life are replaced by the nightmare of having to extend his stay in a place he clearly doesn't want to be. 'Anywhere but here' is his new mantra, but doors of opportunity open and shut just as quickly, even literally in one key scene. Alberta Watson is underrated as Ray's manipulative mother, shrewish in her resolve, yet sympathetic and sensual when she needs to be, while also knowing how to get her way. The contempt she has for herself and her life spills over into trying to make sure that those around her are just as miserable as she is, especially given that her selfish husband leaves her alone for long periods to fend for herself.

Spanking the Monkey is not an easy film to recommend to just anyone, given its subject matter and darkness in the delivery. It's an unhappy story about an unhappy family, though the film isn't without its moments of humor to give the drama some occasional levity. Fans of David O. Russell may find it worth a look for an example of his early work, showing his finesse with actors and a mastery of tone, skirting the line between comedy and drama that he would only perfect with each successive film. Those who enjoy the acting style of Jeremy Davies will enjoy him in a fine performance that shows he doesn't always have to play a crackpot in films.

Underneath the dark humor and wrenching family drama, there's a cautionary tale about the danger of untreated mental illness (Susan laughs at the psychiatrist who suggests it in one key scene), and how contagious the aftereffects of trauma can truly be to a dysfunctional family at the end of their wits.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo