David O. Russell has become an Academy favorite in the last five years, with each of his three most recent films (“The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle“) earning nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and various acting awards. But many fans of Russell’s early movies have missed the David O. Russell who made black comedies about incest and war and screwball comedies about adoptive parents and existentialism, the guy who wasn’t afraid to alienate people even while he was pleading for tolerance and humanity. Russell’s new films show his personality in the larger-than-life performances, but he’s sanded off his edges to make more palatable genre fare, ones that don’t always balance his love of haywire acting with the needs of the story. “American Hustle” in particular shows Russell losing the thread in a sea of improvisation and needlessly show-stopping moments. The Russell who could make something as off-the-wall as “I Heart Huckabees” hit emotionally without cheating at the end (as he does in “Silver Linings Playbook”) seems to have gone away.
Russell’s shift came after the high-profile production woes of “Nailed,” a comedy about a woman (Jessica Biel) whose behavior becomes erratic when a nail is shot into her head. Because she has no health insurance, she can’t have the nail removed, so she travels to Washington, D.C. to ask a Congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) to fight for health care reform. The film was shot in 2008 but shut down because the crew wasn’t getting paid; Russell walked away from the film in 2010, with all signs pointing to it never being completed (key scenes hadn’t been shot). But “Nailed” received a rating from the MPAA in 2013 after the film was completed without Russell’s involvement — he’s disowned the film, which is credited to the pseudonymous “Stephen Greene” — and now it’s hitting VOD under the snooze-inducing title “Accidental Love.”
The best thing that can be said about “Accidental Love” is that it plays coherently and it contains traces of the oddball humanist Russell of old, with an ending that suggests that even the least trustworthy of us are redeemable. Most of the parts are well-cast, and Russell’s talent for getting stars to make themselves look ridiculous is still evident. Biel’s game performance shows that she might thrive if given roles that play to her more manic side, Gyllenhaal’s natural earnestness is twisted to slightly more unctuous ends, and James Marsden, dull when in generic hunk mode, makes for a great cad as Biel’s boyfriend who’s less than loyal when he finds out how the nail affects her behavior. And Biel and Gyllenhaal’s first love scene, a series of dissolves and pans across the room as their feet stick in the air at increasingly obtuse angles, shows signs of the outrageous Capitol Hill sex comedy that could have been.
That’s a rare joke that lands, however. Most are obliterated by hacky, indifferent editing, flat lighting, and some of the shoddiest ADR in recent memory (Biel meets Gyllenhaal and asks for health care reform, cue record scratch). A hatchet job campaign video (assembled by a rival Congresswoman played by Catherine Keener) that suggests Biel and the Girl Scouts are promoting lesbianism plays like an amateur video that would never get more than a few hits on YouTube, let alone become a major part of a political conversation. A scene between Biel and Gyllenhaal where the latter says almost tearfully that he always wanted to be a park ranger is supposed to walk the tightrope between earnestness and goofiness, but John Swihart’s invasive score pushes it over the line to the former and makes the silliness of the statement feel unintentional. That scene more or less encapsulates what’s wrong with the edit, which never captures the careful tone of organized chaos that defines Russell’s best films.
To be fair to the producers, though, they’re hardly working with gold. Many of the scenes that are recognizably Russell, like Gyllenhaal fighting for moose testicles whilst wearing a loincloth, still feel muted, as if we’re watching rehearsal footage for a real take that was never shot. The film’s Washington satire is toothless, too, with Russell and co-writer Kristen Gore lobbing softballs at partisan politics and absurd government plans, never skewering Gyllenhaal’s oiliness or Keener’s ruthlessness as mercilessly as they should. At best, the film’s battle over health care and Keener’s support for a moon defense base comes off as about an eighth as zany as it should be; at worse, it plays like a dull retread of the “save the wetlands” campaign in “I Heart Huckabees,” complete with references to trying to get a major popular music star to support the moon base (Shakira here instead of Shania Twain).
Russell would’ve needed to reshoot or rework much of the material to get the balance required, and even then he’d have the trouble of performers who clearly aren’t working (Tracy Morgan, doing schtick; Kurt Fuller, never showing the high energy needed to make this work). There’s always a chance that an alternate universe cut shows Russell pulling things together, but it’s hard to imagine even in the best circumstances this not being one of the weakest films of his career. As it is, “Accidental Love” isn’t horrible, but that’s mostly because it isn’t much of anything at all, a comedy that chugs along indifferently, waiting for direction that never comes.
A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club
To be fair to whoever refashioned “Accidental Love” from the abandoned scraps of “Nailed,” there’s little reason to believe that the ideal, untroubled version of the material would have been a comedic masterstroke. Gore, daughter of Al and a one-time “Futurama” staffer, offers a satire of partisan politics best enjoyed by those who have never watched an episode of “The Daily Show” — or for that matter, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington”…the love triangle never sparks, in part because Alice’s behavior is largely dictated by that piece of metal wedged into her cranium. Her first pangs of attraction to Gyllenhaal’s frazzled congressman are provoked by a bump on the head—and the movie, tickled by the absurdity of their initial hookup, never takes the time to establish any credible chemistry between them. Read more.
Dan Mecca, The Film Stage
“Accidental Love” is at times wildly broad and at other times extremely pointed in its criticism of our government and the sins that spin its wheels. Sadly, as Alice takes on the government and begins to expertly “play the game,” the film gets bigger and loses its footing. This is never more clear than in the sloppy progression of the Birdwell character, who emerges as a brutally-on-the-nose representation of bi-partisan corruption who fuels a rushed-and-silly finale. Read more.