How does one assess something like Accidental Love? This is the movie that began life as Nailed, directed and co-written by David O. Russell back in 2008, after the critical and financial disappointment of I Heart Huckabees and before his Oscar-fueled career resurgence with The Fighter. Numerous production delays and troubles with financiers eventually led to the director leaving the project in 2010, reportedly with one day of shooting left. (His producers had already departed.) He has since disavowed it, and this highly compromised cut arrives credited to the Alan Smithee–like pseudonym Stephen Greene. It was quietly released on VOD last month and is now appearing in a smattering of theaters.
So, nobody wants to have anything to do with the movie we have before us — which is understandable, since it’s something of a catastrophe. But it also has the quality of a medical cadaver: You can examine it and learn things you might not have known before. Watching Accidental Love, you begin to realize just what it is that makes David O. Russell the director that he is, and you start to have newfound respect for what he brings to a movie. (Yes, yes, I know: You thought American Hustle was overrated. I didn’t. Sorry.)
Based on Kristin Gore’s novel Sammy’s Hill, the story is a broad political satire about all-American roller waitress Alice (Jessica Biel), who is accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun during a romantic dinner with her state trooper fiancée Scott (a hilarious James Marsden). She’s rushed to the hospital, but, just as she’s about to be operated on, she’s denied services because she has no health insurance. (The doctors literally drop what they’re doing and go on lunch break; one of them, played by Bill Hader, whines about 25-year-olds who come to hospitals and expect free health care.) Alice is too old to be insured under her parents, and her job doesn’t offer coverage. Getting health insurance through Scott once they’re married is out of the question, since the nail in her head would just be considered a preexisting condition. (Also, he’s suddenly uncool about marrying a girl with a giant nail stuck to her head.) Paying out of pocket is impossible, as her surgery costs $150,000.
Alice winds up taking her case to Washington, and allies herself with a dashing and slightly helpless Congressman played by an eerily young Jake Gyllenhaal. He falls for her (it helps that the nail in the head makes Alice sexually unpredictable and adventurous) and takes up her cause. Unfortunately, they meet a massive roadblock in the form of a ruthless House Whip, soon-to-be-Speaker, played by Catherine Keener; her big issue is a base on the moon and she isn’t about to let some pointless thing like coverage for millions of uninsured Americans sidetrack her cause. Along the way, Alice makes common cause with armies of Girl Scouts, as well as a preacher with an eternal erection (Kurt Fuller) and a man with anal prolapse (Tracy Morgan), and she becomes a national celebrity. Meanwhile, her fiancée Scott, starting to feel a little guilty about abandoning her (especially now that she’s famous), decides to come back into her life.
Accidental Love is an utter mess, which is understandable given its troubled provenance. It’s also fascinating. We see so little genuine satire on film nowadays — it’s always crossbred with something more earnest, like a romance, or a thriller — that watching one suddenly feels like an alien encounter. (Yes, this film has a romance in it as well, though it feels largely secondary, despite the foregrounding in the title.) Of course, the film also offers a case study in why cinema has largely ceded satire to television: The flipside of topicality is a reduced shelf-life, and the entire premise of Accidental Love has dated in a post-Obamacare America. One wonders if the film, whatever its other flaws, might have felt less awkward had it been about something more of-the-moment.
But what truly makes this film so curious is the way in which flashes of Russell’s genius shine through the chaos. We already know his talent with actors; there are few surer routes to an Oscar nomination these days than a major part in a David O. Russell movie. But we sometimes forget just what an exciting shooter he is — how freewheeling his camera can be, how he can capture and enhance a scene’s inherent energy with almost supernatural power. Through the fog of this edit, one can sense some potential career-best work from people like Marsden and Biel, actors who often find themselves slumming in genre movies and rarely get the chance to show their comedic chops. But alas, even their performances are largely trampled here.
One of Accidental Love’s biggest crimes is that it doesn’t respect the rhythms of Russell’s work, trying to graft conventional edits onto footage that most likely was meant to have a free-form, almost improvisatory quality. Russell was trying to put I Heart Huckabees behind him with Nailed, but one senses more than a little of that earlier movie (which some of us still find wonderful) and its oddball sense of humor here. But to bring such humor out, you need to understand the unique pacing of the director’s style — the way his jump cuts work, and the way his characters might suddenly find themselves in repetitive loops. Cutting it all in the usual way kills that energy dead.
Could the film have worked, had Russell been allowed to finish it? Nailed would almost certainly have been light years better than Accidental Love, but one wonders if the satire might have still felt thin, the broader comic bits still a little forced. We’ll never know: Not only was Russell not done shooting the film when he left, he was also deprived of that lengthy period of assessing, reassessing, and rethinking during postproduction, one of the most critical parts of the filmmaking process. Accidental Love may be a failure as a movie, but there’s a part of me that’s still glad it exists. This is a unique, cautionary glimpse into the creative act.