Saturday, February 14, 2015

Review: "Accidental Love" is Russell's Worst Film Despite Being Occasionally Ambitious

Left to right: Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal
A lot can be said of director David O. Russell's recent resurgence with his past three films that have garnered him 25 Oscar nominations and even a few wins. He has come to embody one of the finest Oscar bait directors currently working with top notch performances from up and coming stars. However, there has been a notorious legacy around the film that immediately predates these three: Accidental Love. It was filmed in 2008, abandoned in 2010 and released unceremoniously this week on VOD. For a director who would come to define modern mainstream prestige, it is easy to see why he refuses to have any association with this offbeat and sometimes incoherent political satire/sex comedy. It is good, but not Russell good.

The story itself has a very strange presentation that while it makes sense within the confines of the plot, is a very tough sell. After having a dinner date, Alice (Jessica Biel) gets a nail in her head. She is unable to remove it due to a skyrocketing cost for surgery and her absence of healthcare. In this situation, she goes with her friends of fellow healthcare absentees to Washington D.C. where she befriends Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal), who will help her get the bill passed. There's bumps along the way, including the sensitivity of the nail, which could trigger her sexual inhibitions if adjusted the wrong way.

There's two schools of thought for this film. If approached on the broadest sense of a lowbrow comedy, it is actually quite fine. The production isn't spectacular and the nonsensical moments hide the potential inventiveness of the plot. With a fine cast of actors, the film follows a conventional pattern where the scandals make no sense and the jokes are absurd. Jessica Biel is rather effective in the lead, often showing a nuanced sensibility that keeps things from becoming too excruciating. However, it manages to lose momentum in the final act when the lowbrow and highbrow are forced to intersect, resulting in a muddled statement about love, politics and mental stability in general. It is a film that is immediately forgettable yet has enough going for it that it isn't a total waste.

On the other hand, it is lacking the Russell charm. While his work lately can be described as safe, he used to produce hard hitting satires with dark humor that poked fun at dysfunction. There's traces here that look like they're going for bigger and grander themes. However, there's a blurred line between his voice and those that inevitably finished editing it. With overdramatic music and even a few needless sound effects (there's a record scratch at one point), the studio comedy aspect overpowers a singular and confident voice in a project that didn't feel like it had any chance of working anyways. It also feels unfortunately dated, even from the standpoint of 2008, where the conventions play out more like a 90's film. Call it too ambitious, but Accidental Love had too much silliness to ever be this hard hitting comedy, even if Russell stuck around.

It is a perplexing failure and one that definitely explains why he made a career change. For better or worse, this is Russell at his lowest. It lacks any distinction and while packed full of enough chuckles to be passable, feels less in line for a man set on being an auteur. There's little clarity on what was studio notes and what was the actual director's intentions, but the film still sides closer to mediocrity. Much like the premise, it manages to bump between deeper wisdom and groaning stupidity often moment to moment. What really saves the film is a cast willing to put up with the jumbled material to produce a comedy that pushes boundaries, but is too embarrassed to admit it. Accidental Love is a mess, but not a completely deplorable one.

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