It's not exactly news that Mom and Dad and all the things they stand for are completely lame. They were lame in the 1920s, when nice Presbyterian girls from Omaha turned to bathtub gin and the sin of the Charleston. They were lame in the 1950s, when James Dean took one look at world-whipped Jim Backus cowering in the kitchen and sped off to play chicken in his hot rod. They were lame when half the Woodstock Nation dropped acid during the Jimi Hendrix set.
In Spanking the Monkey, this month's contribution to the Generation X Bitch-a-thon, we learn all over again that corrupt parents are still doing great damage to the tender psyches of their children and that the children don't like it. In this case, the victim is a beleaguered lad named Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies), who's just finished his first year of premed. In his dad (Benjamin Hendrickson), he's faced with a mouthy, philandering Willy Loman type who likes to dump all his problems on poor Ray. Mom (Alberta Watson) is a neurotic failure who, while laid up for the summer with a broken leg, demands not only that her son haul her to the shower, but--just maybe--that he haul her ashes, too.
Not a pretty picture. But the young, New York-born writer/director David O. Russell has a few things going for him. Like postadolescents of any era, this Amherst graduate indulges himself in the ancient conceit that his generation is busy reinventing the world--that no one's traveled this road before. But even on a low budget, he also proves himself such a skilled and witty filmmaker that Monkey does look and sound like no other movie. If Generation X's children of disorder and divorce, raised on computer technology, TV and the sullen urgencies of rock, are shopping around for an anthem, this might be it. Russell takes some pretty broad swipes at family dysfunction in the Nineties, but his film has more grit and substance than Reality Bites, Singles or most other Xer flicks. Faye Dunaway turned down the mother role. Too bad; it's her loss.
Our hero, Raymond, is this moment's version of The Graduate, a smart, appealing, dutiful kid who's up to his neck in others' mendacity. Cornballs in loud sports jackets don't sidle up to him and whisper "plastics" in his ear, but he's every bit as harried by social and sexual demons in his homebound summer of hell as Dustin Hoffman was by Mrs. Robinson and company.
For one thing, Ray's awful father is the kind of petty suburban fascist who records the odometer reading on the Cadillac before escaping on an extended sales trip, lest Sonny Boy waste a tablespoon of gas going to the movies. Mother, meanwhile, would provide nourishment aplenty for Freud--or Hitchcock: An attractive, sulky woman long frustrated by her own junked ambitions and a sour marriage, she literally and figuratively lies crippled in her bed, watching medical shows on cable, enslaving her son and prying into his affairs. He's given up a good summer job to scrub Mom's back, but now the dog won't even let him use the bathroom in peace.
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The twin specters of incest and violence--in places, the movie feels a little like Roman Polanski--are the irresistible elements here, but Russell is always relieving the tension with wit. When Raymond and a neighboring high school girl (Carla Gallo) stumble into an intimate moment, she rats him out to her dad, who in turn winds up flirting with Ray's lonely mom. He tries to tell a dirty joke at a doctor's office, and the funniest thing about the scene is that no one will let him get to the punchline. Going over the girl's choices of prospective college courses, Ray sees she's picked "Ecosystems Under Environmental Stress."
That describes his own dilemma to a T, of course, and of it Russell has made a highly corrosive comedy that, despite its exaggerations and theatricality, ably captures the latest tone of an old complaint. Regardless of the way they put on their baseball caps, twentysomethings with what they think is an entirely new set of values boiling in their blood are always going to beef about the old set. That's natural and healthy, of course, even though a good deal of the carnal confusion David Russell satirizes looks mighty unhealthy--like the Nineties themselves. The filmmaker summarizes that, too, in one comic irony. Asked why he wrote a freshman research paper about children's AIDS, Raymond glumly replies: "Because that's what people say the future is."
Maybe so, but moviegoers would do well to keep their eye on Russell's future, too. He's bound to make films even more focused and pithy than this impressive first feature, and it probably won't take long.