Pros: An Excellent & Strange Comedy from David O. Russell.
Cons: The Oedipal Tone of the Film Will Indeed, Turn Off Many.
Throughout the advent of independent films, sex is commonly the one-subject indie filmmakers love to capture. Whether its about homosexuality (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Living End), voyeurism (sex, lies, & videotape, Exotica), sadomasochism (Secretary), or even to the more NC-17 films like the sensual Henry & June to the extreme Crash. While some films about sex can become accessible, there are still some areas that are taboo. The subject of incest is one of them and its one subject not many could take. In 1994, filmmaker David O. Russell decided to tackle the subject matter into a black comedy about incest that is titled Spanking the Monkey.
Spanking the Monkey is a film about a young college student returning home originally for a short trip until last minute business trips from his father forces the young man to stay at home and miss his chance at an internship. Instead, he is forced to stay home and tend to his injured mother while meeting a young girl who is about to go to college and his life is getting very confused as his time with his mother begins to intensify. Playing the young named Ray Aibelli is Jeremy Davies in his first leading role as he captures the tortured emotions of a young man wanting to leave his parents world. With veteran actors like Alberta Watson and Benjamin Hendrickson playing his parents and Carla Gallo as his girlfriend, Spanking the Monkey is hilarious black comedy on a touchy subject many would stray away from.
The film begins with Ray Aibelli sitting on a bus ready to come home from MIT only to stay at home for a few days. He begins to anticipate an important internship to Washington D.C. where he would work with the Surgeon General. When he arrives on the bus stop to meet his dad Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), Tom tells him that he has to go on a last-minute business trip for a few weeks to sell videotapes to many clients all over the U.S. Tom also tells him that Rays mother Susan (Alberta Watson) has injured her leg and is forced to stay in bed for weeks. For Ray, his plans are ruined as he is forced to listen to his dads instructions. If his dads controlling instructions werent bad enough, he is forced to deal with his mother, who is bossy herself, and she needed him on many things including when she needs to use the bathroom and take a shower.
Ray is often depressed and tries to relieve his sexual demons by spanking the monkey in the bathroom, only to be interrupted repeatedly by his dog. He walks his dog, as part of his dads instructions, where he meets a young high school girl named Toni Peck (Carla Gallo) who is trying to go to MIT herself. She often seeks his help as he is trying to deal with the dreary existence of his home life. Then comes a group of his childhood friends led by Joel (Josh Weinstein) as Ray finds himself to be very different from them as they self-destruct themselves through dope and booze.
The only good thing about staying home with his mom is the fact that she helps him finish an essay he needs to submit for the internship. The relationship then intensifies a bit as he would rub lotion on her leg and she becomes very aroused by it. Ray however is starting to feel sick about whats going on. His sickness would lead him to have a rough time with Toni as they make out. He gets in trouble with her dad while his own dad keeps giving him some more controlling as he tells Ray to find some missing tapes he needed. Ray never finds them as he gets help from a nurse into tending his mother. Then one night, Ray and his mom find themselves drunk and one thing leads to another. Ray finds out what happens and he is sickened about the incident.
Ray begins to lose control with his mind and even as Toni forgives for the previous incident, their relationship starts to suffer. If that wasnt bad enough, his father returns to find the missing tapes in his office and things start to get worse. Ray eventually loses control with all the things in his life, as he is sick to be around his mother, his dad, and his friends.
David O. Russells quirky approach to his script and direction is filled with very funny moments. Though some might find the comedy to be flat and the Oedipal tone of the film to be sickening, it is still filled with a lot of funny moments that the audience couldnt help but laugh and be sick at the same time. Jeremy Davies definitely provides the films best performance as the tortured Ray. Similar to the way Maggie Gyllenhaal did in 2002s Secretary, in which he co-starred, broke through; Davies brings a sense of soul and sympathy to his character, as he is just a guy who just doesnt want to be around his parents. Alberta Watson also provides an excellent performance as the dependent, self-loathing Susan. She even brings in some sex appeal to the film as a mom who is hot while Benjamin Hendrickson does an excellent performance as the overbearing father. Carla Gallo is the films most innocent performance as she becomes the only sense of reality and life to Ray and helps brings some tension between her and Rays mom.
Despite its taboo subject and black comedic tone, Spanking the Monkey is an excellent film from David O. Russell led by a stirring performance from Jeremy Davies. Traditional filmgoers will likely stay away from this film while fans of independent films will really enjoy the film for its quirky, comedic tone. The films script, Russells earthy tone, and the performances of the film make Spanking the Monkey one of the more essential indie-sex films of the past fifteen years. Once you can get the Oedipal tone of the film, Spanking the Monkey is a smart, heartwarming black comedy.