Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 28, 2010

Director's Report Card: David O. Russell (1994-1996)

I know I haven't updated this blog in a long time. So, sorry. Finals and working on various projects have kept me busy. Here's the David O. Russell report card.

1. Spanking the Monkey
“Spanking the Monkey” starts off as a dry, low-key, character and dialogue driven comedy with occasional moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity. (Most of which involving dogs and masturbation.)

Jeremy Davis does really well and, with his distinctive voice and unique screen presence, immediately drawls the audience’s eye. Alberta Watson gives a very thoughtful performance and it’s obvious a lot of work went into the role. The two actors have a definite chemistry and a certain amount of tension between them that is pivotal to the film’s success. Benjamin Hendrickson and Carla Gallo have less to work with in their parts but both also give good supporting roles.

Towards the midsection of the story, things become more dramatic and the comedy values begins to all but disappear. As with almost all films that shift gears like that halfway through, the final half is decidedly less successful and entertaining then the first. The attempts to pull of a “serious indie film” look, even when aided by Russell’s nice visual work, are never fully convincing. Still, two wonderful lead performances hold your attention and keep you watching even through the depressing final act and heavily symbolic ending. [Grade: B]

2. Flirting with Disaster
I can’t even begin to imagine how David O. Russell’s mind works. As an amateur screenwriter, I have enough difficulty putting together a straight ahead story that flows properly. How Russell can create a story like this that takes so many different twist and turn, goes in several different directions and then goes back on those choices, and yet never falters in pacing or comical punch is just beyond me at the moment, I guess. That “Flirting with Disaster” works so well even with a story that is too wacky for the adjective “madcap” is a testament to the skill of the makers.

Maybe it works so well because, despite all the insanity that unfolds and all the varied and distinct characters brought in here, we have a likable two lead characters to relate too. Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette play off each other very well and are totally believable as a married couple, even when the characters are at odds (which is during most of the movie.) The naming of their baby is also the main quest here (even if it doesn’t appear to be) and that steel objective keeps the story grounded as well.

The ensemble cast is really phenomenal with more great performances then I have room to point out. I will single out a young Josh Brolin, who plays a character much different then the type your use to seeing him in, and great supporting turns from instantly recognizable character actors Richard Jenkins and David Patrick Kelly.

If I haven’t brought to attention how funny this is, I will now. The movie is hilarious in spots and totally surprising. You never know what will happen next and that level of unpredictability makes this a hugely successful comedy. I’ll admit, despite being really funny in spots, its never as gut busting hilarious as it could be. There is also a minor gripe about Stiller’s character (whose selfishness is annoying at times) and a gag involving Indian wrestling which seems contrived. Still, I liked the characters and the out-of-control pitch of the story enough that these aren’t really issues. “Flirting with Disaster” is an extremely well-written, lovable, funny movie that you can watch over and over again and never looses its strengths. [Grade: A-]

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