Through the use of satire, and a good dose of slapstick, Accidental Love attempts to show some of the more absurd aspects of society. However, the slapstick seems to undermine the gravity of the characters, as it carries the narrative too far into the ridiculous for the audience to then believe the film’s characterization of society. Although it is possible to bring satire and slapstick together in a way that works, in Accidental Love, they feel like two opposing tones. The movie is often humorous because of its astute observations through satire, but also awkward because it relies on embarrassing and meaningless sight gags, which hurt the overall plot and message that the filmmakers are trying to convey.
Accidental Love follows Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel), a woman who gets a nail stuck in her brain during a romantic dinner. Side effects include random outbursts of sexual innuendo, sincere naiveté, and fluency in Portuguese. She is rushed to the hospital but is turned away because she doesn’t have health insurance. After having a veterinarian “play” operation with her brain (free of charge), Alice decides, along with a pastor and a black athlete, that her best chance of getting treatment is to approach her congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Washington DC. The congressman offers to have her $150,000 surgery funded by discretely stuffing it into a giant bill proposing a moon base, but only if she will promote the establishment of that moon base on TV.
Not surprisingly, Accidental Love has been met with harsh criticism despite some smart satire and funny gags. Early reviews have called it “flimsily constructed” and “incoherent,” and while I can’t really disagree, I do see an infectious and vibrant energy that is too good to ignore. Director David O. Russell has washed his hands of the project, but some of the blood is clearly still there. And that’s not entirely a bad thing.
This film attempts to do nothing less than satirize the major American institutions and show how their self-centeredness has led to corruption and a disregard for the well-being of others. The minister in the film has a medical condition that causes him to have an enlarged penis because so many pastors and priests have fallen into the same sexual immorality they preach against. Alice chooses to rack up a credit card bill instead of buying medical insurance because so many young people have learned to play with money they do not have. These jokes work because they hit awkwardly close to home; we therapeutically laugh to help deal with the pain of their dark truths.
Otherwise, the film often achieves what Birdman called an “unexpected virtue of ignorance,” as the amateurishness of the production seems to add to the odd energy of the picture. Scenes are often oddly constructed so that it is difficult for the spectator to piece together the spatial relations in the diegesis. There is a lack of establishing shots and the editor either has never heard of the 180 degree rule or never cared to use it (I have a feeling he or she is no Ozu). Meanwhile, the cinematographer’s gratuitous use of Dutch angles appears influenced by the style of Battlefield Earth. Conventional film form is broken, too, which many will interpret as being errors in film grammar, and they may well be right. Accidental or not, I think the aesthetic adds a distinct stylistic energy that felt simultaneously spontaneous and fitting with the off-kilter world it creates.
However, the story is episodic with a lack of transitional scenes, the pacing is uneven and the slapstick humour grows tiresome (how many times do people get tripped, sacked, or hit in the head?). The movie also often plays for cheap sitcom-like gags that utilize cringe-worthy techniques which include non-diegetic sound-effects to highlight a punch-line. For example, when a character utters a one-liner, the sound of a scratching record is laid over the soundtrack. This is corny but, worst yet, not funny.
Yet, in a time when finding an enjoyable comedy is difficult (unless you want to see Fifty Shades of Grey), Accidental Love is a mildly good time, even if many jokes hit with a louder thud than a nail projectile to the head. Movies like The Campaign and Anchorman have taught us that plot sometimes needs to come secondary for a movie to be comedic. Of course, it would be better if the film could have managed to balance deep characters and engaging pathos along with the yuk-fest, but the problem is that a lot of the broad, physical humour didn’t nail me. The idea of a moon base is a ridiculous proposal that is a farce of government’s willingness to waste money based on its ‘coolness’ – this is funny. A government official dying by way of suffocation from a Girl Guide cookie is slapstick, making no comment about the characters and our world – this is not funny. Say what you will, comedies have to make you laugh.
Accidental Love is a glorious mess of a movie that is considerably messier than it is glorious. It wants to have low-brow moments (like when a girl-guide asks, “what is an orgasm?”) alongside satirical elements that are smart and subtle critiques of American culture. The problem is that the dumb and vapid gags (in other words, the slapstick) rip away the emotional and intellectual weight of the smarter ones.
Stanley Kubrick understood the possible problems with mixing slapstick and satire when he cut out a pie fight scene at the end of Dr. Strangelove. It would have made the world’s annihilation in the next scene a joke or punch-line instead of a dark revelation. Yet, for every slapstick pie to the face in Accidental Love, there is a sweet taste that slides down your face and lands on the tip of your tongue.
Accidental Love appears to have hints of David O. Russell’s original social commentary, but the film wastes its potential on annoying slapstick set pieces.