Spanking the Monkey (1994)

Genres - Comedy  |   Sub-Genres - Black Comedy, Domestic Comedy  |   Release Date - Jul 15, 1994 (USA)  |   Run Time - 99 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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David O. Russell was rattling the cage right from the start. The title of his directorial debut is a common euphemism for masturbation, and its subject matter is the Oedipal relationship between a college-aged son and his bedridden mother. But Spanking the Monkey does not get by on sheer audacity alone. Its complexity far exceeds its shock value; in fact, it's hard to figure out whether it's the blackest of black comedies or a drama sprinkled with uncomfortable laughter, leaving video stores at a loss for where to catalog it. That's due not only to Russell's finesse with directing absurdist set pieces, such as Ray having to help his mother shower or brush his squirmy dog's teeth, but also with the scathing details of a screenplay that bleeds a certain twisted truth. Ray is caught in an unending cycle of embarrassment and futility, and it's reflected in all of his relationships: his exacting bastard of a father, his depressed mother, his mercurial sort-of girlfriend, and his juvenile sort-of friends. Even his dog has an uncanny knack for interrupting Ray during his few "moments alone." Russell documents Ray's personal hell with an unflinching eye for discomfort and hopelessness. Jeremy Davies, so memorable as the cowardly soldier in Saving Private Ryan, makes a richly textured starring debut, expertly charting the death throes of the character's optimism. Alberta Watson, as the other half of the taboo central relationship, gives a remarkable performance as an aging temptress weakly struggling against her own self-loathing. After this risky debut, Russell went mainstream with the hilarious Flirting With Disaster and the incisive Three Kings, but continued to find ways to flout conventions in each of his films.