David O. Russell’s “Accidental Love” (2008/2015)

For the most part, watching a given director’s films in chronological order and analyzing them for the purposes of THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an immersive and revealing way to study his or her artistic growth.  Sometimes, however, it can pose a puzzling dilemma– especially in cases where the film was released several years or more after it was actually filmed.  Even more so in the scenario that’s every director’s dreaded nightmare: a film that turns out so horrible that the best course of action is to remove one’s name from the credits entirely.  Do you even include it in the curriculum?  If so, how?  Over the course of several years and the study of several different directors, the best course of action has always seemed to be to taking on each cinematic anomaly on a case by case basis.

In the case of director David O. Russell, it’s absolutely imperative to examine how the growth of his artistic aesthetic and the trajectory of his career narrative is affected by his intended follow-up to 2003’s I HEART HUCKABEES— the god-awful ACCIDENTAL LOVE (2015).  There’s no mincing words on this one; ACCIDENTAL LOVE is an atrocious train wreck where every artistic decision, from Russell’s down the line, is arguably the wrong one.  It’s a bumbling, ill-advised wannabe satire about the state of American healthcare circa 2008, but by the time it was finally released nearly eight years later, its central storyline had been made so profoundly irrelevant with the passage of the Affordable Care Act that the distributor could only bill the film as a romantic comedy.  Even in the hypothetical scenario of Obamacare’s failure to become law, ACCIDENTAL LOVE would still fail as a political satire thanks to is disgusting oversimplification of very complicated issues and policy.  It even fails as a romantic comedy– it’s not very romantic, and it’s definitely not funny.  It’s the unequivocal low point in Russell’s career, a film so bad that his name won’t be found anywhere within the credits.  Nonetheless, ACCIDENTAL LOVE is an important experience, if not a film, as Russell’s abject failure here sets the stage for a roaring comeback that would install him as a permanent fixture on the awards circuit throughout the 2010’s.

ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s troubled production history is well documented, taken down as a cautionary testament for anyone attempting to mount a film at any stage in their career.  The film started its life as an adaptation by Kristin Gore (daughter to Big Al) of her own novel, “Sammy’s Hill”.  Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher of Red Wagon Productions oversaw Gore and co-writer’s Matthew Silverstein & Dave Jeser’s work on the screenplay, now titled NAILED (1).  As an independent comedy wearing its political activist heart on its sleeve, the project no doubt seemed like an ideal fit for Russell, who was able to assemble together an impressive cast of A-list stars thanks to his respectable resume and a healthy budget of $26 million from upstart production company Capitol Films and its emerging figurehead, David Bergstein (2).  As production commenced in the spring of 2008, It became increasingly apparent to cast and crew that their financier’s pockets weren’t as deep as they promised, and a continued series of non-payments prompted walkouts from headliners Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal (3).  The situation deteriorated so much that the unions eventually had to get involved, leading to production shutting down no less than fourteen (FOURTEEN!!) times (3).  Russell and his producing team didn’t buy Capitol’s flimsy excuse that the 2008 financial crisis was to blame for their money woes, and thus insulated themselves from Bergstein releasing an unfinished product against their will by scheduling the pivotal inciting sequence at the end of the shoot (2)– without it, there is no sensible story to speak of.  Ergo, no movie.  This plan worked in Russell’s favor, as he ultimately never shot it.  By the time reshoots resumed after the unions pulled their support and initiated another shutdown, he had already disentangled himself from the project permanently.

Even had production gone swimmingly, it’s still surprising that executives found the story of ACCIDENTAL LOVE interesting enough to even take it that far.  The first of many cliches places the action in a small Indiana town, where a pretty but somewhat clueless waitress named Alice Eckle is quite literally skating through life.  Played sufficiently by the underrated Jessica Biel, she’s a small-town girl who loves her family, her job, and her boyfriend– a mustachioed cop named Scott (James Marsden, an inspired choice) who is well aware of the fact that he’s the most handsome bachelor in town.  One fateful night, he takes her to the fanciest restaurant in town with the intent of proposing, but a renovation project near their table sidelines his proposal when a worker with a nail gun accidentally tumbles from his ladder and fires a huge nail directly into Biel’s cranium.  Seemingly fine despite the fact she has a giant spike in her brain, she rushes to the hospital to get it out.  There’s just one small problem– she doesn’t have health insurance, and the cost for the operation is so absurdly high that she or her family can’t pay the bill and her intimidated new fiancée breaks off the engagement.  It doesn’t help that the operation wouldn’t be covered if she got a new policy, since it would be technically considered a “pre-existing” condition.  All seems lost until she sees an interview on television with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Howard Birdwell, a plucky young congressman from her district who is passionate about healthcare reform and in need of a strong case to push before Congress.  The newly-inspired Alice makes the trek to DC, accompanied by a strange entourage that includes Tracy Morgan, who is essentially playing himself.  She tracks down Howard and makes her plea, energizing him with not just her words but her newfound nymphomania (an unexpected side effect of the accident).  Their frenzied love affair constitutes the “romantic comedy” aspect of the marketing, with the “political satire component realized in their battle with Catherine Keener’s villainously conservative Majority Whip, Representative Pam Hendrickson.  Also along for the ride is an eclectic cast comprised of the likes of Paul Reubens as Hendrickson’s conniving assistant, Bill Hader as Alice’s pompous surgeon, Kirstie Alley as Alice’s veterinarian aunt, and James Brolin as the Reagan-esque House Speaker whose unexpected death is exploited by Alice and Birdwell in their fight for healthcare reform.

Russell and his cinematographer Max Malkin gift ACCIDENTAL LOVE with a strong visual style, albeit a clunky one that feels a little out of place; chafing against the tone struck by the final edit done in his absence– like a stylistic Frankenstein that doesn’t know what it wants or is meant to be.  The 1.85:1 35mm film frame deals in a strange, discordant mix of strong color, a pleasing grain structure, elegant camerawork, and evocative lighting that’s immediately compromised by sophomoric slapstick comedy, over-exaggerated performances, clunky cuts, and ill-advised canted angles that almost float like a deflating balloon.  Production Designer Judy Becker provides one of ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s few unified aspects in its retro midcentury Americana aesthetic.  It’s safe to say that Russell’s collaborations with the department heads stopped with those present for the shoot, leaving those in the post-production process sorely lacking his directorial input.  This includes credited composer John Swihart, who apes the idiosyncratic tenor of Jon Brion’s score for I HEART HUCKABEES with an undermixed suite of colorless muzak.  The finished cut also includes several on-the-nose rap and R&B needledrops whose very inclusion is curious, considering what no doubt must have been the substantial licensing cost imposed on the crash-strapped production.  

Despite disowning the picture and removing his name from it entirely, a few traces of Russell’s artistic character remain in ACCIDENTAL LOVE’s DNA.  For instance, the family interactions between Alice and her parents possesses the same kind of breathless, Scorsese-inspired kinetic energy as similar moments from I HEART HUCKABEES or FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996).  The health insurance reform plot provides ample fodder for Russell to channel his inner activist, and he clearly relishes making numerous pointed references to the government’s hyping of a flashy moon base over a sorely-needed service like quality health care.  

In 2010, Bergstein and another financier, Ron Tutor, were eventually able to buy back NAILED from foreclosure action and assemble an incomplete cut from the footage they had (3).  Tutor asked Russell to return and finish the picture, but they ultimately couldn’t come to terms on a new deal– he balked at Tutor’s request to impose pay cuts that would have seen his Red Wagon production team’s fees cut in half.  Russell and his producers walked off forever, but the cast wasn’t so fortunate, as their contracts obliged them to return for reshoots under the supervision of an unnamed director who was most definitely not Russell (1).  Expectedly, Capitol went bankrupt a year later, and it looked like NAILED would never see the light of day.  Things changed yet again in 2014, when indie distributor Millennium Entertainment bought the film and recut it under the supervision of ex-Capitol executive Kia Jam (2).  This new cut, the one finally released in theaters in 2015, bore the final astonishingly dense title, ACCIDENTAL LOVE.  When he learned the news, Russell worked to prevent this deeply-embarrassing episode from further tainting his career, lobbying the DGA to remove his credit and replace it with the fictional pseudonym, Stephen Greene (2).

ACCIDENTAL LOVE is a film that died many deaths before its completion, and it suffered one last humiliating death at the box office, opening in limited release to the tune of $4500 after its initial VOD offering (4).  Critical reception was understandably, overwhelmingly negative– the film has ossified at a 6% on Rotten Tomatoes, having been dumped onto the home video market only a month after its theatrical release.  The career downturn that had, ironically enough, started with the relatively successful THREE KINGS (1999) and continued on towards I HEART HUCKABEES hit rock bottom with ACCIDENTAL LOVE.  Russell’s production woes had only increased with each successive work, and it’s harder to think of a more agonizing production experience with so little to show for it than ACCIDENTAL LOVE.  The only direction left for Russell to go was up– and up he would, valiantly reforming himself into the kind of esteemed director he no doubt envisioned himself to be.  The lessons learned on ACCIDENTAL LOVE are crucial to the understanding of Russell’s artistic growth, as it was the film to save to his career from its dizzying tailspin and allow him to mount one of the better comeback stories in recent cinematic history.

ACCIDENTAL LOVE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Millennium Entertainment.

Credits:

Produced by: Kia Jam, Judd Payne, Matthew Rhodes

Written by: Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein, Dave Jeser

Director of Photography: Max Malkin

Production Designer: Judy Becker

Edited by: Mark Bourgeois, Robert K Lambert

Music by: John Swihart

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