David O. Russell’s Accidental Love, a long-gestating car crash of a production infamously daubed with a pseudonym of shame rather than Russell’s name, was screaming out for admission into the hallowed halls of the Citizen Kane of Awful. So here we are. Is Accidental Love as bad as you think it is? Did Russell’s regretted offspring really deserve to be disowned?
Accidental Love does actually make a decent first impression with its opening scene, an introduction to the 1950s-style burger joint where heroine Alice (Jessica Biel) works. Soundtracked with Pat Ballard’s sweet ‘Mister Sandman’, and featuring an array of mint-condition classic American cars – kudos to the picture car coordinator, David Neil Enfinger – this is the best-realised scene in the film. Although the motives are hardly pure, as we’ll see later on, it’s well-choreographed too; a standout sequence in a film which is on the whole poorly constructed.
The deliberately nostalgic setting exploits idealisation of the past, recalling beloved flicks such as Grease, and it briefly embodies the quirkiness some have found in the film. With its rollerskating waitresses and dated décor, this drive-thru wouldn’t be out of place in superior films such as Whip It or A Cinderella Story. The closer you look at the details though, the faster this attempted portrait of wholesome innocence crumbles.
Premise vs. Tone
Russell’s movies don’t come across well in synopsis. The appeal of the pitch for Accidental Love isn’t quite as bewildering as the relative commercial and critical success of Joy’s woman-designs-and-sells-mop narrative, yet in another genre the story of an injured woman campaigning for better healthcare could have been incisive, and – had it been released a few years earlier – politically relevant. Accidental Love’s script has the raw materials, but it’s hampered by wild tonal inconsistency. With its smutty humour, perhaps best exemplified by the film’s punning former title, Nailed, and cartoonish injury scene, it plays like a comedy. However, by continually provoking sympathy for Alice’s situation and encouraging us to root for her in Washington, it suggests a desire to be taken more seriously. Do so at your peril.
Before the story begins, viewers are greeted with a full-screen digitally-rendered map of the United States, complete with rippling stars and stripes as a backdrop. As if the full-force patriotism wasn’t offputting enough, the graphics look pretty dated (perhaps they are – Russell shelved his work in progress back in 2008 when it was still called Nailed). It doesn’t help that this image is preceded by a title card reading ‘a few years ago’.
Accidental Love asks us to accept a world in which a group of adults known for unpredictable and potentially dangerous behaviour are allowed to camp with (infuriatingly obnoxious) girl scouts, without anyone questioning it. This is emblematic of the wildly unrealistic circumstances which make Accidental Love too ridiculous to credit; it’s hard to sympathise with Alice’s struggle against Congress when you don’t believe she would have survived all the jiggery-pokery the nail in her brain’s been subjected to.
Accidental Love employs a spectacularly annoying trick also later lazily redeployed in Joy. The first appearance of Alice’s primary love interest is a teasing shot in which the angle of the actor’s head and hat obscure his identity, prolonging the revelation that it is James Marsden until he raises his face in slow motion – despite the fact that he appeared on the posters. In Joy the first appearance of frequent Russell collaborator Bradley Cooper is similarly redundantly teasing; a tracking shot moves up his leg and body, delaying the “revelation” that it is in fact… Bradley Cooper.
Accidental Love has further cinematography sins to answer for. Cast your mind back to the opening. Despite admirable attempts at disguise, it’s actually a demonstration of the film’s insidiously fetishistic approach to women. She appears carefree, but Alice is being exploited. And so is Jessica Biel, though perhaps knowingly; a side-on shot of her legs lasts a good six seconds, and she later skates backwards, exhibiting her behind to the camera.
While an unsympathetic character isn’t always bad, coupled with Accidental Love’s other shortcomings the repulsiveness of suitors Scott (Marsden) and Howard (Jake Gyllenhaal) really grates, and destroys any chance of the love triangle device creating an effective hook.
This goes hand-in-hand with the above point. Accidental Love presents a love interest who drops Alice like a hot potato once she’s “damaged goods”, yet returns once she’s on the road to self-improvement, as he would see it. Furthermore, the narrative makes Alice completely dependent on male help in her quest to get the nail removed and improve healthcare for fellow Americans – plus her helpmate is a serial womaniser without an ethical bone in his body.
It’s baffling that the likes of Catherine Keener, Bill Hader, and Jake Gyllenhaal were willing to give their time to this. The belated release was especially poor timing for Gyllenhaal in the wake of a strong run of performances including Enemy and Nightcrawler.
Perhaps the most unconvincing element of Accidental Love – rivaled only by its tenuous grasp on medicine and human anatomy – is its political drama. The incompetent Congressman Howard Birdwell, miles from the satirical figures of shows like The Thick of It, is a slimy creep whose happy ending we’re supposed to celebrate. His every move will have you yearning for the pacier, cleverer machinations of The West Wing.
Russell could learn a thing or two from the Georgians. Or Noah Baumbach for that matter. As painful as it is to make the comparison, Accidental Love’s final act seems to be striving for the kind of surreal farce found in the climax of Baumbach’s Mistress America. The difference? Baumbach and co-writer Greta Gerwig created believable characters that the audience care for.
Film rating: 1/5
Kane rating: 3/5
Not even bad in a so-bad-it’s-good way, Accidental Love fails to convince on almost every level. Unrealistic and unlikeable characters provoke only apathy, while the outlandish plot stays this side of quirky, settling instead into the murky realms of poorly-conceived.
Aside from some voyeuristic camerawork – and of course the “hilarious” results of Alice’s reduced inhibitions – Accidental Love is far more boring than inflammatory. It’s best left where it belongs – buried on the final page of your Netflix search results. If the above isn’t enough to convince you, maybe this will be: IMDb claims ‘People who liked this also liked…’ Aloha.