“I’m not into making or watching that kind of movie anymore.” That’s what David O. Russell has to say about his debut feature, the Sundance-winning “feel-bad” comedy about incest Spanking the Monkey, a picture that excels in making the audience uncomfortable and, as Russell puts it, shows how awful human beings can be to each other. A fine breakthrough, the gross and smothering sensations of Spanking the Monkey were something from which the director fled as soon as he could, even while remaining fixed on dysfunctional families and tormented individuals: the screwball sex comedy Flirting With Disaster, wherein Ben Stiller flees one set of neurotic parents to end up with another; the manic comic assault of I Heart Huckabees as Jason Schwartzman is stuck between opposing but overlapping philosophical world views of the transcendently positive and the dreary and existential negative; and the uphill battles of Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as Lowell, Massachusetts boxing brothers in The Fighter, caught in a maze of images created by media and family relationships. All of these other stories go down easy and fulfilling like a good meal, and instead of Monkey’s med student (Jeremy Davies) escaping from home and walking into an unknowable future, no doubt damaged by the predicament of his origins and circumstances, Russell has since desired his heroes to “become the blanket,” to quote “existential detective” Dr. Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) in Huckabees, where contradictions are transcended and rivalries reconciled. Not a stranger to mental illness and familial distress in his personal life, Russell loves happy endings relieving his characters’ dysfunctions and maladjustments, playing God as he writes with his camera, itself as overbearing, invasive, judging, tyrannical, and ultimately merciful as the deities that he, a student of comparative religions with Dr. Robert Thurman of Columbia, is familiar with.
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