Spanking the Monkey (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"People ask if this film is autobiographical, and many of the circumstances in it are but I've pushed them farther than they really went. It's personal, but not completely autobiographical. It was common in my home and my friends' homes to see no fathers around - and even when they were around they weren't really around. It wasn't just that they were so busy working hard for the family to afford living there, but they became estranged from the family and it was too hard for them to come back into the fold, I think. There were lots of lonely mothers who got overinvested in their sons' lives...The weird thing about this very common situation is that nobody much talks about it."
- David O. Russell, writer/director of Spanking the Monkey

My college days aren't so far behind me that I can't recognize a nightmare summer vacation when I see one. And that, amongst weightier issues, is exactly what Spanking the Monkey is about. If poor Ray (Jeremy Davies) ever had any illusions about life being fair, they don't last beyond the first five minutes of David O. Russell's debut feature.

Ray's Freshman year at MIT has gone very well. So well, in fact, that he has been awarded a rare summer internship working at the Surgeon General's office in Washington D.C. It's the opportunity of a lifetime -- but not Ray's, apparently. His father, Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), has other plans for him: stay home, mow the lawn, take the dog on long walks, and -- while he's there -- play nurse to his mother, Susan (Alberta Watson). She's suffering from a low self-image, acute depression, and a badly fractured left leg. So much for Ray's perfect summer.

Spanking the Monkey is a diabolically dark comedy complete with an insight or two into human nature keen enough to cause a little discomfort. Director David O. Russell has set up his world as a "normal" suburban community, then caused all sorts of bizarre things to happen. While circumstances aren't taken to David Lynch extremes, one has a sense that the director of Blue Velvet would appreciate what Russell has done with his canvas here.

Much of the conflict in Spanking the Monkey centers around Ray's resentment at being forced to sacrifice his life to care for his mother. He tries all sorts of alternatives, but is unable to come up with a way to escape the trap. Susan, feeling neglected by her philandering husband (who cares more about his dog and car than her), is only too happy to have Ray around.

The relationships are fascinating to observe and dissect. This is true even considering that all of the characters are too self-absorbed to be especially likable. The most obvious interaction to watch is that between Ray and Susan, two people whose feelings for one another have become warped and twisted by their individual imprisonments. On the other hand, the emotional interchange between Ray and his father rarely reaches beyond the most superficial level -- but Tom never wanted any children in the first place. Then there's Toni (Carla Galio), Ray's girlfriend for the summer, whose views on sex leave our protagonist confused and frustrated.

Spanking the Monkey is often funny -- and sometimes hilarious -- because of its acute perceptiveness. This is not a "nice" movie -- it deals with some pretty intense issues (like incest and suicide) -- but it is both bold and inventive, and works because of an unforced approach. Daring us to laugh at some of the blackest foibles of mankind, Spanking the Monkey ventures into realms that more conservative viewers might label as "taboo", and emerges triumphant. Add Russell's name to the growing list of young directors who know what they're doing and how to get it done.

Spanking the Monkey (United States, 1994)

Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Jeremy Davies, Benjamin Hendrickson, Alberta Watson, Carla Galio
Screenplay: David O. Russell
Cinematography: Michael Mayers
Music: Mark Sandman
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1