Spanking the Monkey

As open-minded as our society has become about gender and race (or, at least, part of our society) when it comes to incest, we’re not exactly looking to move that needle forward anytime soon. And that’s where art comes in, ready to push us into exploring the very ideas we’d most rather avoid discussing. It’s hard to guess if a film like Spanking the Monkey would be embraced in today’s intellectually repressive climate. It spins incest into comedy, and, while it leaves you with enough evidence to draw your own conclusions about characters and their motives, never really comes out directly against the concept of a son sleeping with his mother. It teases you, plays with your own sense of morality, makes you both accomplice and judge.

The characters in Spanking the Monkey are all a mess, a dysfunctional family with a capital “D”. Ray Aibelli is a first-year college giving up a prestigious summer internship in order to take care of his bedridden mother (she has a broken leg.) Full of resentment, he nevertheless resigns himself to being a dutiful son, stuck in this boring little town with little to do other than play nurse. There’s a high school girl around who clearly has a crush on him, but he’s too much of a mess to manage a proper summer fling. He’s got friends, sort of, but they’re clearly on a different wavelength. Alienated by all, Ray broods and broods in between helping his mother bathe, eat, dress, and pretty much everything else she might need… or want.

Hollywood bad boy David O. Russell has earned a reputation as both a brilliant filmmaker and a horribly abusive director- here, in his debut, you can see evidence of both. He clearly loves pushing buttons; he clearly has no problem dragging his characters through the ringer. Whether he does it to make a genuine artistic statement or simply because he wants to see where the experiment leads is not always easy to tell, but it makes for a truly great low-budget piece of American cinema. The performances by everyone- mom, dad, son, and girlfriend- are all absolutely perfect: sincere, dark, sweet, confusing, complex. The film is funny, the film is serious- every scene adds an important piece to this character puzzle, conspiring towards the inevitable copulation between mother and son- but that’s only half the movie. Dealing with the aftermath is the hangover Spanking the Monkey doesn’t let us avoid.

It would be unfair to dismiss Spanking the Monkey as merely being there for shock value; there’s too much going on in the story, too many morsels dropped for us to chew on. At the same time, Russell’s handling of the material is “of its time,” and while he doesn’t fully ignore the power dynamics at play here, he doesn’t quite address them either. The blame falls clearly on the parents, to be sure, and Ray is a victim of that dysfunction- but the comedy does lend a detached and somewhat blasé vibe to a pretty intense subject we really haven’t explored well as a society- which is probably the reason Russell wanted to make this in the first place. Three decades later, the film remains amazingly sharp on almost all fronts; a great absurdist indie flick then, and now.


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