I’ve seen Spanking the Monkey, a movie about incest between a young man and his mom, referred to as a comedy. That’s some dark definition of humor. If Monkey were a French film — if the boy were essentially untroubled and if the seductive mère were essentially wise, and if it were evident that the boy would assuredly grow up to be essentially okay (perhaps to become an auteur?) — then I would buy such a breezy characterization. As it is, this well-composed, confidently shot, low-budget feature by 35-year-old first-time writer-director David O. Russell (it won the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival) is all the more affecting and provocative for its much more American, much more emotionally untidy approach to a loaded subject. What I mean is, calling Spanking the Monkey a comedy is too easy.
Not that there are no weird laughs along the way. Trapped at home in the suburbs during a summer break from MIT to look after his mother (Alberta Watson), a depressive, demanding woman laid up in bed with a broken leg while his hypocritical, bullying father (Benjamin Hendrickson) travels on business (and screws around), Ray (Jeremy Davies) seeks relief by doing what the slangy title suggests — i.e., masturbating. But each time he attempts to get down to business, his parents’ dog makes a racket and thwarts his plans. This leaves Ray mighty frustrated — and susceptible to the whims of his mother, a lousy, attractive, manipulative patient who requires her son to help her shower, rub lotion on her legs, etc., etc., until the poor hormonally volcanic guy is ready to yowl.
Running counterpoint to Ray’s family miseries are his small agonies with his own contemporaries, particularly with Toni (Carla Gallo), a local shrink’s daughter who’s got unsteady sexual feelings of her own. Toni, ambivalent, complains about Ray to her father (she’s a nice Electra to Ray’s Oedipus) Mom, jealous of the young woman (the teen delicately removes her orthodontic retainer before making out), disparages the girl and taunts the boy. Ray, driven to the brink, tries drastic measures to break free. The dog keeps getting in the way.
The winning performance of skinny, 24-year-old Davies, who got his break two years ago in a Subaru commercial, is key to what makes this audacious story work. Davies registers believable frustration and deadpan teenage disengagement in equal measure. More impressive, he gets us to worry about Ray’s welfare even while we’re entertained by the guy’s predicament: His parents are monsters, his psychological life is in serious danger, he’s booping his mother, for God’s sake. Sounds like an audience-pleaser to me. B+