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'Spanking the Monkey' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 22, 1994

The hero of David O. Russell's brash, provocative debut film, "Spanking the Monkey," is a college student named Ray, and from the movie's very first moments, it looks as if everything in his world had been set up to drive him insane.

Having won a highly competitive internship in Washington, Ray had planned to spend only a couple of days visiting his parents in Connecticut. But in the car from the bus station his hassled father (Benjamin Hendrickson) informs him that his mother has broken her leg and is in bed with a cast up to her hip. Also, she's depressed. She's taking antidepressants on top of her pain pills, and because Dad has the biggest sales trip of the year coming up, Ray will have to chuck the internship to stay home and tend to his mom. "We all have to give some back, Ray," the father says, tossing the self-help videos he sells into a case. "This is your turn."

If, nearly 30 years ago, "The Graduate" was shocking in its portrayal of a May-December affair, "Spanking the Monkey," which is a sort of a '90s riff on that earlier film, raises the stakes by dealing with masturbation and incest. Unlike the Dustin Hoffman character, though, Ray isn't confused about the direction of his life; he just can't free himself from the snares of his family to live it.

Russell leads us into this thicket of dysfunctionality by increments, but even in its most lurid moments, the movie maintains its dryly irreverent tone. Ray's mother is a bored, attractive, fortysomething housewife who, lying drugged up and disheveled in her bed, comes across immediately as dangerously out of control. Since she is unable to go to the bathroom on her own, Ray has to carry her, and while she showers, he has to stand beside her, eyes averted, to help her keep balance.

The scenes in which Ray's mother asks him to rub lotion on her have a queasy eroticism. The mother -- who's smartly and sensually played by Alberta Watson -- may continue to see Ray as her baby boy, but her son's reactions are very much those of a grown-up. And to make matters worse, his attempts to find a private place of relief are constantly interrupted -- most often, in a hilarious touch, by the family dog.

While all this is going on, Ray has also begun a series of liaisons with Toni (Carla Gallo), a high school student who first encourages his advances, then squeals to her father.

By this point, Ray -- who's made to seem pinched and frazzled yet, somehow, still appealing by Jeremy Davies -- is so perplexed by the complications of sex that his head is spinning. Yet the power games that parents play remain the film's dominant theme. From Russell's point of view, the sex between Ray and his mother -- which comes late one night after they've both gotten high on vodka tonics and pelted the television with cheese bits -- isn't much different from the father's ridiculously petty instructions about the car or the dog. In either case, the real issue is control.

The incest is handled with discretion, but the morning-after tableau still packs a wallop. Ray is left with a terrible hangover, both literally and figuratively. Though an aunt has been pressed into service as a nurse, allowing him to leave for his internship, Ray blows his only chance of escape.

A director with a more sensationalistic temperament might have milked this last section of the picture for melodramatic effect, but Russell's direction becomes, if anything, more brisk and more clipped.

Sometimes this works against him. Russell moves far too quickly to exploit Ray as a tragic hero. His sense of ironic amusement is too great for us to feel sorry for his characters or disgusted with the culture as a whole.

Nevertheless there are moments when it works brilliantly. In one scene, Ray's father (who's shown up brilliantly by Hendrickson as a clueless, manipulative tyrant) gases on nostalgically about his dog, and it's so beautifully timed that the oppressiveness of the man becomes secondary to our pleasure in the filmmaking.

The film's subject matter and title (slang for masturbation) may be attention-getting, but Russell never strains for momentousness; he's not a shock artist. Nor does he falter into crudeness. Nearly everyone in his film's absurd suburban universe is a joke, but Russell's portrait of them is affectionate. Their failings are hilarious, but at the same time grave and human. This may be the 35-year-old writer-director's first film, but already he's proven that he's the real thing.

Spanking the Monkey is not rated.

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