Spanking the Monkey
Directed by David O. Russell. Starring Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson, Benjamin Hendrickson, Carla Gallo. (1994, NR, 106 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 16, 1994
After completing his freshman year at M.I.T., Ray (Davies) stops home in Connecticut for a brief visit with his parents before continuing on to Washington, where he's scored a prestigious summer internship at the surgeon general's office. Sucked into the comic drama of his dysfunctional suburban family's life, Ray's summer plans suddenly veer off into uncharted territory – which includes an incestuous fling with his mom (Watson). Upon picking him up at the airport, Ray's selfish father (Hendrickson) orders his son to abandon his internship so Ray can stay in Connecticut all summer while his dad, who is a traveling salesman of instructional videotapes, is away from home (same as always). Dad insists Ray stay home and take care of his depressed mother, who has broken her leg in a suicide attempt. He leaves Ray with a strict and confusing set of instructions regarding the care of both his mother and the car (“do not use”), and yet more instructions concerning the dog's welfare: feeding and walking schedules, as well as passing the torch in the form of a toothbrush used for brushing the dog's gums. At home, Ray is frustrated and bored and even when he locks himself in the bathroom to take care of the business alluded to in the movie's title, the dog won't allow him any peace. Ray's mother is an attractive, fortyish woman, yet certainly no Mrs. Robinson vamp. But the reality of her broken leg imposes a certain immodesty that requires her son to attend to her while she showers and carry her to the toilet and listen outside the door until she is finished. Household tensions grow and are compounded by Ray's awkward attempt at a relationship with a high school girl from the neighborhood as well as his dad's frequent checking up on him. One night, while Ray and his mother are drunk and watching TV, one thing leads to the next and before they know it … it's the morning after. For a movie with such a lurid title and taboo subject matter, Spanking the Monkey is a remarkably comfortable and appealing movie. The sex scenes are chastely undemonstrative; the movie's focus is on the emotions that lead to the incestuous act and its damaging aftereffects. The movie's tone concurrently embraces melodramatics and wry humor, a twisted suburban Oedipal knot seen through a sardonic, yet deeply involved, eye. As Ray, Jeremy Davies (most recognizable from his antic Subaru commercial in which he compares the auto to punk rock) expertly pulls off this conflicted characterization, and as his mother, Watson hits just the right notes. Spanking the Monkey's accomplished performances and dramatic restraint are all the more remarkable since it is Russell's debut as a writer/director of feature films. Proof of its appeal is that it won the Audience Award at the last Sundance Film Festival. It ranks as one of the most original “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” compositions I've ever seen.