(Worth seeing)

Directed and written by David O. Russell

With Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson, Benjamin Hendrickson, and Carla Gallo.

In Spanking the Monkey, writer-director David O. Russell has pulled off no small feat–he’s made a film about incest that shifts nimbly back and forth between comedy and drama. Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) has just finished his first year at MIT and is anticipating going off on a highly desirable summer internship. But after returning home for what he thinks will be a brief visit, his father informs him that he’ll have to stay there and care for his bedridden mother (played with frowzy insouciance by Alberta Watson), who’s been laid up with a leg injury. Other domestic chores include brushing the dog’s teeth on a regular basis and using the car to run errands, though Raymond can’t have it for personal use. (In one funny scene, the father tries to calculate how many miles Raymond will have to drive the car over the course of the summer.) Meanwhile, the oozing, unctuous, adulterous father (Benjamin Hendrickson) will be traveling around the country in his job as a videotape salesman. And so things are set up for the aberrations to follow: mother and son alone together for the summer, drawn closer and closer by their frustration and alienation.

Spanking the Monkey provokes certain obvious comparisons with other films dealing with incest: Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna, for instance. But it reminds me more of Mike Nichols’s The Graduate–these are both portraits of depressed young men handling the coming-of-age ordeal rather awkwardly. Not the least of their problems is coping with a massive oedipal conflict, though in The Graduate the incest is only figurative: the hero sleeps with his girlfriend’s mother. Both films share an understated dark irony partly offset by crisp, breezy camera work. And both use a fair number of close-ups to emphasize the hero’s increasing sense of claustrophobia and entrapment.

Much as The Graduate became a hit on the strength of Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Ben, Spanking the Monkey is buoyed by Jeremy Davies’s performance as Raymond. This is one of the finest debuts I can think of: detailed, nuanced, registering all the highs and lows–mostly lows–that go with being confused and 19. Even more noteworthy is how very natural, even deadpan Davies’s performance is: he never relies on convenient, charismatic turns or actorly gestures. Raymond comes across as sullen and inchoate, partly because he’s already emotionally shut down, partly because he’s pissed off that his summer plans have gone awry. But over the course of the film we get to know him, and he becomes increasingly likable as his predicament becomes increasingly desperate.

This is writer-director David O. Russell’s first feature film (he’s also made two short films and worked on a PBS series), yet his tight, spare dialogue, complete with dark, low-key humor, strikes only a few false notes. Cinematographer Michael Mayers uses some wonderful odd-angle close-ups that seem to compress and thus intensify the emotional content of certain unsettling scenes. In the opening scene, for example, when Raymond’s father meets him at the airport and tells him the plans for the summer have changed, the camera moves in extremely close, then pans and hits on seemingly extraneous details, mimicking the scene’s disjointed, turbulent emotions. Mayers is as adept at rendering the lush exteriors of suburban New York as he is at establishing the increasingly oppressive and claustrophobic interiors of the Aibelli household.

Though Russell may have been influenced by The Graduate, he’s a much more fluent filmmaker than Nichols. For its day, The Graduate was pungently satirical and controversial, but visually the film is a mess. Nichols has never developed a firm command of film language; the camera placement in many Graduate scenes is tentative and unmotivated. The film is also bereft of any real rhythm, lurching along from scene to scene. Russell, on the other hand, has an innate sense of rhythm and pacing to accommodate his strong script and well-composed images. He also maneuvers abrupt turns in the narrative without making them seem forced or cliched. During a particularly intense scene near the film’s denouement, Raymond vents his mounting rage toward his mother by nearly choking her to death, only to be interrupted by several of his buddies, who start banging on the window. When they ask him what he’s doing, he deadpans, “I’m choking my mother.” Without missing a beat, they ask if he’d like to go hang out with them.

Although Russell is largely successful in his take on a difficult subject, several implausibilities hurt the story. The father seems too easygoing to insist that Raymond take care of his mother because hired help and Raymond’s loopy aunt are untrustworthy. And Raymond’s quiet acquiescence when his father demands that he stay home for the summer is not easy to buy. Raymond may be depressed and unsure of himself in some ways, but a young man this academically focused and directed would put up more of a fight.

The scene that leads to Raymond and his mother sleeping together is also problematic. While the events leading up to the act make it plausible that something will transpire, what ultimately unfolds seems contrived. After a night of drinking and bonding with his mother, Raymond begins to rub her leg, as he has done on several occasions because the cast makes it itchy and irritated. Things go further this time, and soon Raymond and his mother start to make out. At this point Russell chooses an elliptical edit–perhaps so as not to linger over the scene gratuitously, but it also conveniently skirts some of the scene’s emotional intensity. And when Raymond wakes up the following morning, naked and lying next to his mother, the scene has a casual, hung-over quality that rings false. Would a young man really be able to sleep next to his mother through the night after having sex with her? Certainly it’s implied that they’ve “gone all the way,” but the gap between making out and waking up next to each other the following morning is too wide.

It’s also hard to accept the shameless, cavalier manner in which Raymond’s mother behaves afterward. One might anticipate that after such a transgression, a person would be in a state of denial at least. But to Mrs. Aibelli it seems to be no big thing, and her character has not seemed sufficiently demented to prepare us for this. In The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury’s nonchalant seduction of her son is plausible because it’s just one more manifestation of a thoroughly twisted mind. But Raymond’s mother is much more complex. After she’s ensnared her son, we anticipate at least a glimmer of remorse, but it never comes. And since she’s been depicted with some sympathy–she’s no monstrous, voracious dragon lady a la Lansbury–this comes across as unbelievable.

What Spanking the Monkey achieves most plangently is a realistic, empathetic portrayal of a young man’s attempts at self-assertion, with all the pain, embarrassment, and missteps that go with it. The performances and mise-en-scene have a naturalistic quality while the story conveys a gothic sense of mythology: the film is an interesting mix of the contemporary and classic. Some of Russell’s scenes have a shambling, disjointed quality reminiscent of the films of John Cassavetes. But Cassavetes’s filmmaking process was elaborate and complex: he would spend weeks rehearsing his cast with a written script, or else he’d develop a script out of weeks of rehearsals, then follow it strictly during the actual shoot. Russell has copped some interesting riffs from the master–seemingly improvised dialogue, a claustrophobic use of interiors, slightly wobbly hand-held camera movement–but he hasn’t walked such an arduous road; overall his film has a smoother, less improvised look.

A more noteworthy comparison to Cassavetes is the fact that Russell made this independent film for a mere $80,000, and that he was able to find a distributor (Fine Line Features, which has easily become the most prominent distributor of independent American films). The spirit of Cassavetes, his maverick sensibility, is alive and thriving among a number of young and talented filmmakers; this summer alone has seen the release of such examples as Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s Suture, Whit Stillman’s Barcelona, and David Wellington’s A Man in Uniform, to name just a few.