Director David O. Russell sowed the seeds for Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees with his darkly comic 1994 debut Spanking The Monkey â€“ lacing a coming-of-age dramedy with a distinctly Oedipal sense of humor, writer/director Russell fashions a memorable film that skates a fine line between funny and frightening.
Ray Aibelli (Jeremy Davies) arrives home after his first semester of college, ready for a brief respite before heading off to Washington, D.C. for a prestigious internship with the Surgeon General. His father, Tom (Benjamin Hendrickson), picks him up from the train station with some disappointing news: his mother, Susan (Alberta Watson), has suffered a broken leg and since Tom's a traveling salesman with places to be, Ray is stuck taking care of his immobilized mother for the summer â€“ effectively canceling his internship. Pissed off at being saddled with caring for his mother, sexually frustrated and depressed about his losing the internship, Ray strikes up a friendship with Toni (Carla Gallo), a high school girl whose intentions may not be the most pure. As the summer drags on, Ray finds himself mired in household tasks, struggling to keep his mother happy â€“ their increased, close physical contact lends an unsettling air to Ray's already confused mindset.
Were it not for the superb lead performances from Davies and Watson, Spanking The Monkey would be a squirmy exercise in indie cinema noodling. As it is, these two actors and Russell's keenly observed screenplay captures the maddening boredom of a lazy suburban summer, albeit one that's shot through with inescapably incestual overtones.
Presented in a fairly clean 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Spanking The Monkey looks really good, given its age and its origins. There's occasional grain but otherwise, detail is sharp and there's no discernible edge enhancement â€“ this is an exceptional representation of a low-budget film.
Dolby 2.0 stereo is the only audio option offered, in keeping with the film's aforementioned low budget. Dialogue is heard clearly and without distortion, although there are some sequences where I had to crank the volume a bit. The score fills in nicely, never intruding upon Russell's witty characterizations. A nice complement to the stellar image.
The prize bonus feature here is a feature-length commentary from writer/director Russell. Given that Russell's prior yack-tracks on Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees are so caffeinated and dense, it was a little surprising to hear this soporific and occasionally silent commentary. Aside from its solemn tone, Russell delves into the "is it or is not autobiographical" question ("I conceived of it as a dark, nasty fantasy, along with some memories of a certain summer," Russell says), along with what he was attempting thematically as well as behind-the-scenes tidbits. The film's theatrical trailer and a still gallery round out the disc.
What could've devolved into a forgettable farce is instead elevated into a minor indie classic as David O. Russell's jet-black comedy Spanking The Monkey both titillates and provokes thought â€“ it's a coming-of-age flick that will linger uneasily after its final frames. Highly recommended.