Spanking the Monkey (1994)

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"There will always be libido and sex in my movies," David O. Russell has said, and, indeed, sex, deception, and family-inspired neuroses are his themes. His gift for clever detours reconcile circumcision jokes, beach-volleyball babe twins, and Reagan acid into a farce. With each movie, Russell has "exorcised certain behaviors." As he said: "With Flirting With Disaster, it was fickleness and second-guessing and knocking myself out with obsessing over things. With Spanking the Monkey, that whole wanting to just having sex with my mother."

His feature debut, Spanking the Monkey, is a gleefully subversive, bleakly comic family saga seething with misanthropy. A twisted coming-of-age tale, it begins in detailed realism, then pushes its characters over the edge into lunacy.

Neurosis-tinged and, despite its theme of incest, the comedy is couched as a cautionary yarn. It examines the sexual agonies and gloomy life of Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies), a pre-medical student who's forced to give up an internship in Washington and stay home in suburban Connecticut to nurse his mother whose broken her leg.

More on the road than at home, Ray's father is a hypocritical, philandering salesman of self-help videos. Prior to his departure, he lays his ground rules, all of which involve his dog, a German Shepherd which gets better treatment than either his wife or his son. Ray is not to use the car for walking the dog and he has to clean its delicate gums with a special toothbrush every day.

Susan (Alberta Watson), Ray's mom, is an attractive fortysomething woman with long hair and shapely body that gives her a sensual look. Bored and lonely, she's ruthless in her demands of attention from her son. Asking Ray to massage her toes, she sadly notes, "I can never get your father to do these things for me anymore," to which Ray's reaction is both repressed and disturbed.

Later, when Ray helps her stand naked in the shower, the scene is neither titillating nor innocent either. Russell displays a shrewd way of breaking tension with irreverent humor, as when Ray tells his mother that her buttock birthmark is shaped like a shopping cart.

Ray takes a "rational" approach to sex (hence the title), but the dog presents a continuous problem: Whenever Ray tries to masturbate in the bathroom, the dog howls at the door (a joke repeated too many times). Resentfully bouncing around the house, Ray becomes the fulcrum of emotional cruelty. With no real friends in town, he becomes attached to Toni (Carla Gallo), a sultry teenager who desires him yet runs to her father-psychiatrist to complain. "Is this how you like them Little baby psychobabble" charges Ray's ferociously jealous mother when she finds Toni in his room.

The incest scene is brief and discreet. Russell makes sure to establish the "proper" context, a night when Ray and Susan have one too many drinks while watching TV in bed. They start tossing bits of cheese at the TV while laughing hysterically, then roll around and one light physical touch leads to another. There's a quick cut to the next morning and a messy room. The aftermath, as Ray tries to find his road back to mental health, is more comic than the descent into forbidden sex.

For a while, the film's deadpan, understated manner is entertaining, though it seems Russell consciously set out to treat a lurid subject audaciously. He handles the incest in an unsentimental, "responsible" manner, as if it were part of a normally painful coming of age. But it's not. The film leaves an uneasy feeling: Did it have to be about incest to precipitate Ray's maturation The mother-son sex comes across as attention-grabbing gimmick in an otherwise worthy story about the need of children to escape the clutches of suffocating parents. The movie is uneven, equal parts brave notes but also tedious ones.