Accidental Love (David O Russell, USA/UK, 2015)

I wrote this review for The Conversation. They spiked it because they needed the piece to be shorter than it is, but did not see how to make it shorter and to get across the point that I am trying to make with it.

Why a website cannot be flexible with regard to word length beats me. Especially one that caters primarily to an academic audience. But there we go. The spike allows me to post it here, and at least without The Conversation‘s usual unmaginative headline – of the sort that makes you think Rabelais was correct about the Agelastes.

Also, editing out a reference to Karl Marx/Slavoj Žižek (which happened between drafts) seems strange to me, again given the academic readership of the publication. Some identity uncertainty seems to be in place: for whom is The Conversation? (With whom does it want to converse? On this occasion, apparently because I speak for too long and namedrop philosophers, not me!) Perhaps we see here an up-front/a priori (unthinking) capitulation to (unthinkingness and) academic research as only useful when of identifiable use (and preferably surplus) value.

Anyway, such speculation aside, here goes the review, which of course may be incomprehensible, as per the view of my editors. If this is so, and I am living alone in a land of blindness and stupidity, then I apologise…

Starts:-

The premise is utterly ridiculous. On the night that small town Indiana cop Scott (James Marsden) proposes to roller skate waitress Alice (Jessica Biel), a nail is driven through her skull during a DIY accident in a local restaurant.

Alice has no insurance, and so the hospital doctors refuse to operate (eating burgers instead). Basing his decision on the probability that the nail will cause Alice’s behaviour to become erratic, resulting eventually in death, Scott dumps her.

This prompts Alice to endeavour to win him back by going to Washington DC to see Congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will help her to put through a healthcare bill that will allow those without insurance to receive medicare when necessary.

In Washington, Alice finds herself embroiled in a plot that involves Machiavellian intrigue as Birdwell bows to Representative Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener), who wishes to put into action her plan to build a military base on the moon – all in the name of defence.

What follows is a farce along the lines of the Marx Brothers meets Capra, something like Groucho Goes to Washington, except with more references to sex and to race.

The film’s ‘lunatic’ story involves Alice sleeping with Congressman Birdwell as a result of uncontrollable urges brought on by the presence of the nail in her brain. Everything nearly goes wrong, but after a dose of _deus ex machina_, the film ends with a wedding and everyone’s happy — even if the wider issue of healthcare remains unresolved (because who could resolve that issue without alienating a large chunk of the American audience?).

So … after giving you such a synopsis, you may well ask why I’m writing about this film, not least because it has been almost universally panned. Well, I’m interested because the film’s director, ‘Stephen Greene,’ is in fact a pseudonym for David O Russell, the successful director of such illustrious fare as Three Kings (1998), I Heart Huckabees (2004), The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and American Hustle (2013). His second film, Flirting with Disaster (1996), demonstrated that he is perfectly capable of this kind of farcical comedy.

Why the change of name, then? Mainly because Accidental Love, which for a long time was to be called Nailed, is a film that went into production nearly ten years ago.  However, owing to financial difficulties – on some occasions the crew wasn’t paid, while on others the cast quit for the same reason – it allegedly got shut down 14 times.

In 2010, Russell quit the film, which he had co-written with Al Gore’s daughter, Kristin Gore. The remaining scenes were supposedly shot without him. So the film, like Alice, was in effect lobotomised. Fast forward through five years of limbo, and Accidental Love gets released on all of the contemporary platforms (VOD, DVD, etc), including a small theatrical release in the USA – with test screenings apparently taking place unbeknownst to Russell and the stars in the interim.

Now, just because Russell at least partially directed it does not make Accidental Love particularly interesting (or particularly good). But what is interesting is what its troubled history reveals about contemporary Hollywood.

That a woman’s libido expresses itself only as a result of a nail in the brain (Alice’s lobotomy) is of course problematic. It suggests that female sexual desire is somehow abnormal, the result of a brain gone wrong. This in turn suggests that Hollywood cannot tolerate an active female sexuality.

(See how ScarJo in The Avengers films has to end up single because her agency, even if she can deflate the Hulk – male-eating Black Widow as causing loss of erection.)

But this plot device suggests to us that the film as a whole, like a nail in Hollywood’s head, also gives expression to things that the American film industry otherwise tries to deny. The film is a repeat of the kind of farcical films that today seem anachronistic and unfashionable – as made clear by the presence of supporting actors from another time in Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens and Kirstie Alley.

If Hollywood does anything, it repeats itself, returns over and again to the same things: sequels, remakes and ‘reboots.’ But if, in the spirit of Karl Marx and, more recently, Slavoj Žižek, what happens once is tragic and what repeats is farce, then the industry denies that this endless repetition is farcical. Rather than an admission of being forever out of ideas, we are told that this is perfectly controlled filmmaking.

Hollywood has sought to get rid of Accidental Love as quickly and as unnoticeably as it can (the film grossed a meagre US$4,500 at the American box office). And yet, that the film has resurfaced at all suggests the return of the repressed, namely the fact that the processes of repetition and return themselves reveal the film industry’s inability to know what it is doing and why.

You may have heard of a man called Phineas Gage. In 1848, he had a bar driven through his skull when at work – and yet he lived for many years while supposedly undergoing something of a complete overhaul of his personality (he was ‘no longer Gage’ say contemporaneous reports – although the validity of these has been doubted).

Accidental Love is something of a cinematic Phineas Gage – a film that got nailed in production and which continues to be nailed by the critical community.

And yet, in this accidentally lobotomised film, we might find much to learn about the ‘normal’ functioning of Hollywood’s film industry, just as Gage is the exception that allows us better to understand the brain’s role in ‘normal’ human behaviour.

Better put, in an era when industry, including the film industry, demands rationalisation and when risk is removed as much as possible (and one removes risk by sticking to what one knows, i.e. by repeating), Accidental Love helps us to understand that Hollywood, perhaps industry as a whole, is in fact deep down irrational, and that its compulsion to repeat and to return is a sign not of a reduction of risk, but really of its overall lack of control.

It is a sign that Hollywood, maybe even capital as a whole, is not superhuman and beyond question or doubt, but wonderfully, farcically, profoundly human – and thus wholly open to question and to doubt. With regard to Accidental Love, then, even if the film is no great shakes, sometimes there’s nothing so interesting as a complete failure.

Ends

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Film reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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