Picks and Pans Review: Spanking the Monkey

updated 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Jeremy Davies, Alberta Watson

Bobbing along in the wake of this summer's plush, big-star cruisers—the new Disney, the new Hanks, the new Arnie—is this strangely engrossing little movie, a mordant comedy about an MIT student (Davies) trapped at home during vacation with his mother (Watson), a vodka-drinking, pill-popping housewife confined to bed with a broken leg. Eventually, Davies winds up sharing that bed.

With her frayed sexiness and sleepy, dolorous delivery, Watson creates an encyclopedia-worthy example of the frustrated suburban housewife. Davies has a pinched quality that is less than endearing—he's like a pickled Timothy Hutton—but is exactly right for an emotionally crabbed student. And first-time director-writer David O. Russell gets all the details perfectly: the dry light of an evening in a meadow where Davies tries to make out with a neighborhood girl; the way Watson coughs to discourage the advances of her philandering salesman husband; and Davies' desperate need to indulge in the titular gerund (slang for masturbation) while the family dog, Frank, whines outside the bathroom door.

The film's real achievement is a deftly maintained tone that combines more flavors—flip, funny, disturbing, tense, charming, ugly, pretty—than are generally held in any director's spice rack. Mind you, Spanking the Money is impressive, but it's not necessarily likable. If you want that, there's Forrest Gump. His mama always said life is like a box of chocolates. (What's death? A Hershey's wrapper?) I'll take mère Watson, bad leg and all. (Not rated)

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