Accidental Love (dir. David O. Russell using pseudonym Stephen Greene)

Posted: April 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Accidental Love” is a film with a weird history, and a review really cannot be written of it without recounting this history. Loosely based on a novel by Al Gore’s daughter Kristin (who wrote for “Futurama”), the film started production in 2008 before President Obama was elected. This is important because the film is a satire of healthcare that is now, in the post-Obamacare United States, desperately dated.  Now, it’s not the film’s fault that it took seven years for the film to be (more or less) completed, because at the time the film was written and began shooting it was indeed true that insurance companies could deny you for having a pre-existing condition and 25-year-olds couldn’t be on their parents’ healthcare plans.  Now that Obamacare took care of those issues, and others, the film is potentially useful as an argument against the Conservatives who wish to repeal it by showing what we would go back to, but as satire it now falls flat on its ass.

Anyway, in 2008 the film began production under director David O. Russell.  This was the movie he was working on between the critical and commercial failure of “I Heart Huckabees”, and his career revival that happened with “The Fighter” and continued with “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”.  Many of you may also remember video footage leaking of Russell on the set of “Huckabees” berating his cast members with extreme yelling and profanity.  Yeah, “Accidental Love” was made shortly after that, and his luck didn’t get any better.

The original title of the film was “Nailed”, which fits much better and I’m not sure why they changed it.  In any case, it seems the film has issues with the producers not coming through with funding, because production was shut down a whopping FOUR TIMES in 2008 because cast and crew were not getting paid on time.  Supposedly, the film was shut down a total of NINE TIMES in its entire production.  So yeah, this film was stopped and started and stopped again over the course of many years because of money issues.  On top of that, Russell eventually quit the film in 2010 after two years of filming on and off, and the film was slowly completed over the following four years or so without him.  Apparently, unfinished test screenings of the film have been shown here and there since 2011, and now it’s 2015 and the film has finally been released,  mostly by being dumped to VOD with no fanfare, despite the impressive cast which includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, and Jessica Biel.

Watching the film is odd.  There are moments where you can sense a good movie potentially being inside of this thing, and some jokes actually land fairly well.  Mostly, however, the film is a mess in which editing, pacing, score, direction, and writing all seem to not be cooperating to make the same film.  I don’t know how much of this film Russell actually directed and how much was shot by someone else (with the actors contractually obligated to continue filming) but this thing reeks of a film that was barely finished.  Sometimes, different coverage of the same scene doesn’t even remotely edit together well at all.  Some scenes are shot with the camera tilted diagonal for no reason.  Awkward insert shots are added to cover up an obvious lack of coverage.  Edits are often too quick because there’s not enough footage to hold on a joke, or anything to cut away to briefly to let a joke build.  Music feels like cheap, public domain sounds that were grafted onto footage they don’t quite fit with.  The tone of the film is both extremely cynical, and yet wants to be a cross between John Waters and the neo-screwball comedy of, say, the Coen Brothers “Intolerable Cruelty”.  The film is finished enough to tell a story which has a beginning, middle, and end.  There is a three act narrative here.  However, it’s obvious that along the way the producers decided to get the bare minimum of footage they needed to tell a story so that they could sell this thing to a distributor.  I do not envy the editors of this film who had the thankless task of assembling years worth of footage by at least two if not more directors and try to make a film out of it.  The film is cohesive, at least, but it feels like it was assembled with a sledgehammer.

The plot involves Alice (Jessica Biel), a roller skating waitress for a 50s themed diner who, when taken out to dinner by her state trooper boyfriend Scott (James Marsden), accidentally gets a nail fired into her head.  Alice doesn’t have insurance, the nail isn’t seen as immediately life threatening, and she can’t afford the surgery.   She’s 25 and thus not eligible for her parents’ insurance, and even if she marries Scott to get his, at that point the nail would be a pre-existing condition.  Yeah, this film was started before Obama was president.  Anyway, it seems the biggest worry about the nail is that it will eventually drift and kill Alice or cause her brain damage.  At first, the nail mostly seems to just make her irritable and speak random Portuguese.  Later, it seemingly makes her a nympho, but only briefly and only when the film needs it to.  In fact, the symptoms of the nail come and go according to what the screenplay needs, to the extent that the nail seems more like a maguffin than a plot catalyst.

One day, Alice sees her local congressman on TV.  This is Howard Birdwell, played as well as anyone could act under this production’s circumstances by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Birdwell seems mostly concerned with getting the kids in his district colored glue for school (okay), but he’s being bullied by his party’s Whip, ex-astronaut Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener, doing a good job as well) to support a bill to put an American military base on the moon.  I get it; the film is saying America is quick to support stupid, bloated military expenditures but far more reluctant to do things that are actually important, like healthcare.  Even after Obamacare, which was a good thing but not nearly as good as having Single Payer like every other civilized nation on Earth, it is still common for Congress to give the Pentagon a blank check for war but not give a shit about helping the less fortunate in their country.  The moon base thing is very broad satire which we can intellectually understand, but the film doesn’t exactly make it funny.

In any case, nympho Alice sleeps with Birdwell, and Birdwell is genuinely willing to try to attach a healthcare rider to the moon base bill, but Hendrickson is a no-go, and when the speaker of the house (a Reagan-esque James Brolin) dies, leading to Hendrickson being promoted to that position, things look rather grim.  There’s more to the story, involving girl scouts, a pastor with priapism (Kurt Fuller), a man with a prolapsed anus (Tracy Morgan), and Kirstie Allie as a large animal veterinarian, but mostly the film kind of spins its wheels and stops short at jokes which fall flat.  It’s almost a surprise when jokes do land, or the satire actually seems biting rather than obvious.  I think the film was trying to be a sillier version of Warren Beatty’s excellent 1998 political satire “Bulworth”, but it instead comes off as a weird mix between John Waters’ “A Dirty Shame” and a cynical college student’s political blog.

Actually, the film this feels a lot like is “Cabin Fever 2”, not in subject matter, but in the slapdash construction.  That was a film where the director also quit (in that case, it was Ti West) and the film was finished without his input by the producers, leading to the director disowning the finished film.  In “Fever 2” as well as “Accidental” you can see the work of a talented director trying to dig itself out of the grave of a hastily salvaged film constructed by shitty producers.

“Accidental Love” fails as a film because the jokes often fall flat, the film is poorly constructed out of Frankenstein parts and scraps of usable footage, and time has deemed the subject of its satire mostly irrelevant.  The acting is occasionally good, and there are some isolated moments which work (one imagines they were shot early on with Russell behind the camera), but the film is only worth watching through the lens of a troubled production, and not as a film in and of itself.  One hopes a documentary about the making of the film will one day be made, putting the footage into context, but until that happens, this film is skippable for all the most interested film buffs or David O. Russell completists. D+

*NOTE* David O. Russell had his name taken off of the film. He is credited under the pseudonym Stephen Greene.

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