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Mother Love

Spanking the Monkey gives a wicked twist to an ancient taboo.

Apparently your mother liks to spend her time in a horizontal position," a doctor chides bedridden Susan in front of her home-from-college son Ray, who's duly taken aback by the risque joke -- not merely because his mother should have been up weeks ago, but because he fears the doctor has found them out: mother and son have had sex. Ray also flinches when his aunt, who has come over to help Ray's mother convalesce, lectures him that "Family's our greatest asset -- but you'll find that out as you get older." It's risky dialogue about risky material, but 35-year-old writer/director David O. Russell pulls off the seemingly impossible in Spanking the Monkey. In his feature film debut, he manages to make incest not just disturbing, but funny. This movie is wicked.

A dark comedy, Spanking the Monkey is also (pun intended) a coming-of-age story. The title refers to a familiar circumlocution for masturbation, something Ray (Jeremy Davies) does quite a lot of after learning he has to give up a summer internship in Washington to nurse his mother, Susan (Alberta Watson), and her broken leg. These bad tidings are communicated by Ray's father (Benjamin Hendrickson), an insensitive salesman forever on the road. Father says good-bye to son at the airport by writing down the mileage on his precious Caddy, giving him intricate instructions on how to walk the family dog and handing him a toothbrush he must use to clean the pooch's delicate teeth.

When not taking care of his carefully choreographed chores, Ray tries to hang out with old high school friends, but they're obnoxious slackers. Toni (Carla Gallo), a cute high school senior, develops an interest in him, but since when they kiss she forgets to take out her retainer, he wonders if she's too immature for him. And since the dog noses around the bathroom whenever Ray tries to, um, relieve himself, the MIT freshman reeks of frustration. Mother Susan -- relegated to bed and demanding attention from her son -- isn't in the best of spirits either.

Which is where the incest kicks in. Shrewdly, director Russell creates not exploitative titillation, but rather witty tension. At first, Ray simply brings food to Susan, whose languid air and tousled hair convey more of a sensuous nature than a sexual intent. When she wants to shower, he carries his mother to the bathroom and acts as her support, face turned away; when she drops the soap and he retrieves it, he notices she has a birthmark shaped like a shopping cart on one buttock. When she asks him to massage her toes, she sighs, "I can never get your father to do these things to me anymore." Finally, a night comes when they drink too much while watching television. They throw cheese at the screen, laugh hysterically, roll around and exchange knowing looks before there's a quick cut to eggs boiling the next morning.

The turn of the screw threads even darker following the incest. Susan jealously barges in on Ray and Toni, a psychiatrist's daughter, who remarks, "I don't see how you can have so much inappropriate control over his life." Susan's reply is aimed at her son: "Is this how you like them? Little baby psychobabble?" Later, Ray's dad makes things even more complicated, announcing that Ray will have to live at home because there's no more money for college.

To Russell's credit, he raises the stakes considerably by film's end, making them literally life-and-death, for Ray is clearly heading toward an abyss. Indeed, an actual abyss figures in the film. Spanking the Monkey is well thought-out, all the way down to the smallest details: Ray's callous father sells self-help videos.

The deadpan acting perfectly jibes with Russell's intent. Particular kudos goes to Davies' intense Ray and Watson's sympathetic Susan -- considering what happens, it's no mean feat that we like them. The movie won the Sundance Film Festival's Audience Award this year and, with aroused Ray at one point saying nervously to nervously aroused Toni, "I think I'm pretty comfortable with this," it's no wonder.

Spanking the Monkey.
Written and directed by David O. Russell. Starring Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson, Benjamin Hendrickson and Carla Gallo.

Not rated.
98 minutes.

 
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