Spanking the Monkey (1994) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
When he was a precocious young man, film director David O. Russell
one particularly unpleasant summer trapped at home, his activities restricted
by the physical demands of caring for his bed-ridden mother after she
got into an auto accident. His father, a publishing executive for
Simon and Shuster, was away on business most of the time, leaving
David to do the yeoman's work at home. It was the summer from hell.
Russell's mother was, according to many
(including Russell), a smart woman who gave up her own career plans to
be an upper middle class housewife and mother, and eventually developed a severe drinking problem.
Without enough to occupy her time, she not only drank excessively, but
used her unfilled time to dote on and manipulate her only
son. She also pushed him hard and berated him frequently, even
slipping occasionally into physical abuse.
Spanking the Monkey is writer/director Russell's revenge for that summer. The basic components of the fictional story are similar to the events of that year, but include many melodramatic embellishments. Ray, the character who represents Russell, is a high school valedictorian who has just completed his first year at MIT and has done so well that he's been granted a prestigious summer internship with the U.S. Surgeon General's Office. It was to be the summer of his life, and was spoiled because of his mom's broken leg and his father's life as a road warrior. Life in the house is hell. He is unable to get any real time for himself because of his mother's lack of locomotion and her desire to control him. He has to carry her to the toilet and the shower and to assist her with other intimate processes. Even his attempts at masturbating (spanking the monkey) fail because of a whiny family dog who can't bear to be locked out of the bathroom.
There is one very significant place where Spanking the Monkey (presumably) varies from the real story. It portrays a different kind of physical abuse - not beating, but sexual manipulation. Ray's mom eventually maneuvers him into a sexual encounter, and the frustrated son allows the incident to happen.
Talk about family fun! How did Disney pass on this?
Russell wrote this as a spec script, supposedly in a seven day frenzy of output, and finally cut a tentative deal with New Line, which offered him a million dollars to make the film if he could offset the taboo subject matter by getting a major star to agree to act in it. Russell flew out to Hollywood in search of Faye Dunaway, but was summarily rejected. "She laughed in his face," said Russell's ex-wife, Janet Grillo. Even though Grillo worked at New Line, that studio's offer was dropped when Russell could not convince Dunaway or any other name player to appear in the film. Russell then had to put it all together as an indie film. He raised $80,000 initially, half of it from selling $1,000 shares to friends and family, with the other half coming from a couple of film grants. Unfortunately, that only got him halfway through the script, and he then had to turn to a film completion fund to get the job done. He saved money by housing the crew for free, a deal which he obtained by agreeing to make a promotional video for the participating motel.
The filmmaking story has a happy ending. The film won the audience award at Sundance, and New Line bought it. They only paid a lowball $250,000, but that was enough for Russell to recoup his costs, repay his investors, and show the world what he was capable of. Russell would soon go on to some substantial success as the writer/director of the critically-praised Three Kings (93% positive reviews). New Line also ended up satisfied with the Spanking the Monkey deal because the film took in $1.4 million at the box office.
(The stories and quotes above come from pages 48-53 of Sharon Waxman's Rebels on the Backlot, a study of Hollywood in the 1990's. The book is linked below. )
Whether you approve of the subject matter or not, you will concede that Spanking the Monkey is a very impressive effort for $200,000. It looks and feels like a much bigger film. The cinematography and editing are competent, the pacing is excellent, and the two major roles are delivered by solid actors (Alberta Watson and Jeremy Davies). The great weakness of the film, as I see it, is not in the controversial subject matter but in the fact that the treatment hovers in limbo between comedy and tragedy. The Rolling Stone quote on the DVD box says, "shockingly funny," but that comment seems to come out of fantasyland, or perhaps it is spin required by a societal code that will not allow mother/son incest to be considered anything but black comedy. In reality, the incest is handled believably, in such a way as to involve the audience in the increasing sexual tension, to share the POV which led to the encounter, and to understand the incident. There is nothing funny about the sexuality between the two characters and Spanking the Monkey is not a funny movie in general, although it is not without wit. Nor does the film ridicule the incestuous partners. On the other hand, it is not quite a realistic character study either. Take, for example, the character of the father. He is exaggerated to the point where his rules and his self-pitying martyrdom and his philandering are a wild caricature of people we may know - but he is not exaggerated sufficiently to be funny, and he's not distorted enough to be surreal. He's just a lot more irritating than your dad or some dad you know who is like him but not quite as bad. He's an archetype, but not a comic stereotype. Not funny.
Russell is one of those smart, introverted, aloof filmmakers who are beloved by critics, but don't generally generate enough warmth to elicit much love from mainstream moviegoers. Critics considered him one of the best filmmakers of the 1990s, but his IMDb scores are in the "OK, not brilliant" range. I'm not sure whether the critics have the best overall perspective, but it does seem to me that Three Kings is probably underrated at IMDb. A film with 93% positive reviews and $60 million at the box office should be Top 250 material, and it is not even close.
I don't know if I'm the only one left who still pictures David O. Russell as a wunderkind who will soon enter the adult phase of his directorial career, but that is certainly a misapprehension. He is approaching 50 (he's 47 years old). If he is going to make it to the cinema pantheon, he had better hurry up because he's not getting any younger, and his last film was considered a major step downward from his previous one, despite the fact that five prime years of his life seemed to disappear between the two films.
Tuna's notes in yellow
Spanking the Monkey is the first full-length film from David O.
Russell (I Heart Huckabees, Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster). It
was made for a mere 80K using film stock ends his wife somehow
appropriated., The crew was unpaid, agreeing to a percentage of any
profits. The crew's lodging for the 25 days of shooting was also free
because the convention center hotel agreed to house the cast and crew
in exchange for a documentary about their facility. It cost another
100K to finish the film after principal photography was in the can.
They managed to sell it at Sundance, and it did $1.4M in distribution.
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