Media narrative can define and even ruin careers, and in the case of notorious artists, can linger on long after they’ve become obsolete. In the case of director David O. Russell, his past and present selves probably wouldn’t recognize each other. While always a well-regarded whirling dervish of creativity, post “I Heart Huckabees” — when leaked production footage showed the filmmaker fighting with and berating his actors — the filmmaker’s then-reputation as a mercurial, bad boy director couldn’t have been lower (this was,m of course, a film or two after George Clooney allegedly clocked him on the set of “Three Kings”; his legend was already growing).
On reflection, Russell now sounds like a completely different person. He’s the celebrated, thrice-in-a-row Academy Award-nominated Best Director whose films seem like an instant ticket to award season success for himself and his actors (his last three films have 25 Oscar nominations between them, 11 of them for his casts). Maybe in another alternate universe, his narrative could have gone astray and a more downward trajectory could have followed. Or at least, a much more ruinous trajectory is potentially hinted at in “Accidental Love,” formerly known as “Nailed,” a belatedly “finished” comedy released against Russell’s wishes — he disavowed the unfinished film, which has been cobbled together by the new owner Millennium Films and he negotiated to take his name off the picture. The director credit now goes to “Stephen Greene.”
A wacky, manic, and slapsticky comedy with a tone somewhere between an episode of “30 Rock” and “The Simpsons,” the movie from “Greene” is a bizarrely pitched political satire, health care comedy, and love story rolled into one, but has none of the sharp “Daily Show” or “Colbert Report” wit you’d expect. Written by Kristin Gore (Al Gore’s daughter, who worked on “Futurama” if you want to get a sense of the madcap humor), “Accidental Love” centers on a waitress named Alice (Jessica Biel) who accidentally gets nailed in the head during a marriage proposal from her small town’s sexiest cop, Scott (James Marsden). But without health insurance, Alice cannot afford the medical procedure to remove the nail from her head (which also causes crazy bouts of rage, sexual mania, and speaking in Portuguese), and her engagement begins to crumble thanks to her hedging-his-bets groom-to-be. Desperate and without options, she decides to go to Washington, DC in the hope that a young, idealist (but ultimately unscrupulous) congressman, Howard (Jake Gyllenhaal), can help her plight.
“Accidental Love” has a rather large cast too. Aside from Gyllenhaal, Biel, and Marsden, the movie features Catherine Keener, Bill Hader, James Brolin, Paul Reubens, Kirstie Alley, Beverly D’Angelo, and the now all-grown-up Olivia Crocicchia, who some will remember from Jason Reitman’s “Men, Women & Children” (she plays a baby-ish Girl Scout troop leader in the film). Even James Caan was in the film, before he dropped out a few days after shooting. All that is to say, many were clamoring to work with Russell on his political satire, but nothing in this frenzied movie suggests his various comedic talents, both past and present.
Watching the incoherent “Accidental Love” is akin to being high, but not really enjoying the trip. The movie whizzes by at a feverish, disjointed speed, but its hyper momentum and disorderly delivery is more disorienting than it is pleasant. Sequences jump from scene to scene with jarring dizziness and without rest notes or massaging transitions (most of which were never presumably shot). Tracy Morgan — who plays one of the motley crew health insurance-less wounded who make the pilgrimage to Washington — is perhaps best suited to the movie’s zany tenor, but he hijacks every scene to the degree that he’s either better-suited to the crazy rhythms or acting in a different movie, it’s never quite clear.
“Accidental Love” dives into every scene with screwball-ish fervor, but never attempts to credibly establish any relationships. Whether these scenes were excised from the final cut, or never scripted, we’ll likely never know. Russell is a big Frank Capra acolyte, and one could see “Accidental Love” as his ode to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” added to the craziness of post-modern sitcoms and sketch comedies, but none of it gels remotely well.
Marked by quick fades to black in scenes that seem unfinished, or at least had no transitional elements between them, “Accidental Love” is all over the map. But at the same time, it’s perhaps less unfinished than we’ve been lead to believe. Sure, it’s rushed, hurried, feels stitched together in many parts, and yes, the infamous “nailed” scene was never shot and has been recreated thanks to the use of cheap CGI. But the nuts and bolts of the picture are there, including a beginning, middle, and fully completed ending, a semi-coherent story, and a through line. That’s not to say “Accidental Love” isn’t a compromised effort, it is, but perhaps the biggest problem is its execution.
Laying blame at the feet of the hack-edit job done without the director feels reasonable enough. And yet, the humor, now dated, and satire, mostly scatterbrained, and toothlessness, suggests a project that was ill-conceived from the get-go (all those egregious Dutch angles in the first act were presumably not directed by someone else either). It’s tempting to think Russell was happy this film fell apart and would never see the light of day (guess again).
At the same time, how fair is it to judge a movie that was shut down eight times during production and never actually 100% finished (for one, the producers tried to ransom the delinquent financiers, Capitol Films at the time, but purposely delaying the shooting of this critical scene in hopes it would force them to come through with the promised money). The seat-of-its-pants uncertainty of it all surely must have put extreme duress on filmmaker, crew, and cast. And who’s to say, under regular circumstances this movie might have worked. Reshoots for one, could have certainly massaged passages that didn’t work, and there are definitely several of examples of elements that would have never flown with Russell — score, music, corny non-diegetic sounds like a stop-the-needle record scratch, etc.
Lastly, in a post Obamacare nation, perhaps “Accidental Love” might have felt a little bit more relevant had it been released in 2008, but seven years later, it really feels like the socially-relevant equivalent of rocking a faux hawk today. It’s untimely release of course does it no favors. The backstory of “Accidental Love,” aka “Nailed,” is infinitely more fascinating that the movie itself, though the film is a depressing and cautionary tale about who you make movies with in Hollywood. While “Stephen Green’s” movie does contain the occasional laugh — James Marsden can be surprisingly sharp as the small town cop — “Accidental Love” is mostly a mess, a curiosity for fans, and a mangled misfire you’d understand anyone hoping to omit from their CV. [C-]
“Accidental Love” is available on VOD and digital platforms now and opens in limited release on February 20th.