Monday, June 15, 2015

David O. Russell through a Stephen Greene filter

When a director walks away from a movie mid-production -- in other words, after some of the filming has been completed -- you expect his or her mark to actually appear on the movie.

That makes Accidental Love even more of a head scratcher than it already is.

David O. Russell was making this movie as long ago as 2008, under the title Nailed -- which, let's be honest, was probably never going to last. (The new title, though, is a blatant example of this trend.) He actually co-wrote it with Kristin Gore, Al's daughter. It was a movie those of us who followed Russell's career always knew about, and distantly wondered when or if it would ever materialize.

Then in the past six months or so we learned that it did indeed still exist, but that the production kept on getting stopped because of financial difficulties, and Russell actually left the project years ago. In fact, he has so distanced himself from it that it is being directed by Alan Smithee -- though Alan Smithee happens to be going by the name Stephen Greene in this case. Russell's name does not appear anywhere in the credits, and indeed, Stephen Greene is listed as its director. The movie was completed without him and dumped earlier this year as more or less straight-to-video -- VOD, with a limited theatrical release a month later.

Russell enthusiasts such as myself were undeniably curious about it, though. If it had attracted him in the first place, and if he had worked on it for a while, there had to be interesting things about it, right?

No, there aren't. Not really even one. In fact, I considered giving it the lowest star rating possible on Letterboxd, a half star, before ultimately deciding it wasn't that level of an abomination and generously awarding it one star.

But what's weird about it is how little there is of Russell in it. Not very much in the subject matter, but even less in the production values.

If you aren't familiar with the story, its the tale of a small-town Indiana girl (Jessica Biel) who works as one of those rollerskating waitresses at a diner, and gets a nail from a nail gun embedded in her head. (How is not important, but it's one of the movie's least credible elements.) Because she doesn't have health insurance, surgeons at the local hospital refuse to remove the nail, as it's not considered life-threatening at the moment, and in the short term only figures to scramble her personality a bit. Anyway, Biel's character sees an ad on TV for her local freshman congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in which he extends an open offer to his constituents to come to Washington so he can help them with their problems. Biel does just that, trying to get the congressman to pass health legislation that allows coverage for catastrophic injuries to the uninsured. In the meantime, they fall for each other.

Although it certainly sounds like a bit of a tough sell, it's not outrageous subject matter for a movie. What's outrageous is the tone and the way the actors go so over-the-top in their performances -- an obvious consequence of the lack of a strong directorial hand.

In considering the likelihood of this material as something Russell would be interested in, we have to remember that at the time he started working on it, he was coming off his broadest and most ridiculous film, I Heart Huckabees. Considering Accidental Love as a follow-up to Huckabees, the over-the-top performances and absurdist tone make a bit more sense. And after I so loathed Huckabees, I wouldn't have been surprised at anything Russell did next.

But what's shocking about Accidental Love is how shoddy it looks. I mean, kooky as it was (and not in a good way), Huckabees at least had good production values. This movie, on the other hand, is just awful looking. The lighting is the thing you notice the most. It's terrible in almost every scene. Then you notice the little things, like the fact that the handheld camera is distracting (especially since it isn't being used for any particular purpose) and that it is failing at the most basic level to do things like place its subjects in the middle of the frame. The editing is also terrible, but that's something that obviously would have taken place after Russell was no longer with the project.

I could understand some scenes looking terrible because obviously they were directed by somebody else (or maybe nobody), but what about the scenes Russell did direct? Not having much money cannot alone be an explanation for the film's fundamental inability to look appealing. Yet the film is consistent in its terrible appearance, meaning that even the Russell scenes looked like shit.

It did almost seem like the film was being shown through some kind of terrible filter, a filter that made even Russell's scenes look yellow and washed out, a filter that made every shot look like it was lit by someone holding a desk lamp just above the heads of the actors.

I guess we can at least credit Russell with having the good sense to recognize this as a disaster and do everything within his contractual power to disavow it as the product of his own creative impulses. But the terribleness of Accidental Love can't all be attributed to some other person taking the job he started and finishing it on the cheap. He was the one who set the ball rolling on this path to oblivion, and just because he jumped out if its way doesn't mean he's in the clear.

Just add another episode in the "David O. Russell is difficult" file. At least he's proven his smarter instincts ultimately prevailed in movies like Silver Linings Playbook (big time) and American Hustle (to a lesser extent). And he'll get his next crack at audiences this Christmas with another Jennifer Lawrence starrer, a drama this time, called Joy.

But those awful instincts are still in there, somewhere, and I'm betting we'll get at least one more Accidental Love from Russell before he yells "Cut!" for the last time.

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