Oedipal 'Spanking' is unsettling but very good

September 23, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

An idle mind is the devil's playground, right? But what if the idle mind belongs to . . . Mom?

That's the queasy but oddly compelling thesis behind the sassy "Spanking the Monkey," which opens today at the Charles. It's been called a black comedy, but not so much out of accuracy as out of futility, because no other appropriate term exists. I mean, what do you call that age-old Oedipal tale, the Boy-gets-Mom story? What's so terrific about the film is its quiet, unsensational logic. This isn't the antic comedy of the gross-out, of the I'm-so-outrageous school; it's quieter, far more subversive and convincing, and far more unsettling. It arrives at its denouement by small, logical, completely believable increments, until the ultimate coupling of boy and mom feels entirely inevitable. The young writer-director David O. Russell has constructed a family unit that occupies a very special hell; each little psychological tic seems to connect to another psychological tic: Add in unusual opportunity, and the stage is set for what neither wanted but neither could avoid.

Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies), a bright young pre-med student, comes home for summer vacation to a world ablaze with possibility. He's gotten great grades and he's just been accepted for an elite administrative internship at a government agency in Washington. He means but to stop off and celebrate with his parents before heading to D.C.

It's not to be. Raymond's mother Susan has fallen and broken her leg. His father Tom has an intense business schedule looming over the summer and cannot spare the time to care for his own wife. He tells Raymond he's very sorry but things have to be as they are, and soon he's off, leaving the mother and the son isolated in the house in a vortex of intense intimacy -- bedpans, showers, meals on trays-- and each twisted by a unique pathology of longing and loathing.

Russell is a brilliant observer of sharp, vivid details, and a keen tracker of the tidal give and take of psychic torment. We learn quickly certain key facts about the Aibelli family: the father -- well played by Benjamin Hendrickson -- is a blowhard and control freak, a sad, harsh little man who's lost command of his life and compensates for it by overcontrolling those still in his meager little backwash of power.

Mom -- brilliantly played by the Canadian actress Alberta Watson -- is a beautiful woman in her late 30s. She's coy, seductive, brilliant, and any psychiatrist could make a career of the warps in her head. She's sexually frustrated -- the husband spends his energy, money and bodily fluids on prostitutes when he's on the road. She's extremely involved in her son's ambitions and hopes.

Then there's poor Raymond. Jeremy Davies is equally brilliant, getting not only Raymond's intelligence but his weakness. For Raymond, like so many young men his age, is burbling with hormonal lava. His only release is the activity hidden under the coarse imagery of the title; a younger girl, who throws herself at him, just depresses him. His moronic friends depress him even more. He's Holden Caulfield with a mother from the hot side of hell.

"Monkey" is hypnotic and chilling rather than flat out funny. It's not perfect, but it's so freshly imagined and so throbbing with life as it might be lived, the movie packs considerable power.

"Spanking the Monkey"

Starring Jeremy Davies and Alberta Watson

Directed by David O. Russell

Released by Fine Line Features



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