With his last three movies, writer-director David O. Russell has achieved a hat trick the likes of which Hollywood had never seen. American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and The Fighter, released over a stretch of four years, each earned at least seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. They were all box office hits, each earning more than $100 million. And none has a Rotten Tomatoes rating below 90 percent.
But the next David O. Russell–directed film to hit theaters isn’t earning any Oscar nominations and currently owns a rare 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. No, I’m not talking about Joy, due this coming awards season, and once again starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. I’m talking about the David O. Russell movie coming out this weekend, the one without his name on it: Accidental Love, a comedy he began shooting in 2008 (under the title Nailed) but never finished. A political satire rebranded as a rom-com starring Jessica Biel and Jake Gyllenhaal, Accidental Love finally arrives in theaters Friday after several weeks on video on demand (and years of postproduction limbo). It provides, to longtime Russell-heads, the missing link between Russell’s ongoing winning streak and all the movies that came before, which Russell now describes as “a galaxy far, far away.” And the story of how it went from a novel by Al Gore’s daughter to a bastardized recut officially credited to the Alan Smithee–style pseudonym “Stephen Greene” could itself make for a pretty good David O. Russell movie, complete with screaming matches, big egos, and the zany, second-act plot twist that the last straw for Russell was the Affordable Care Act. (Thanks, Obama.)
To understand Accidental Love you have to think your way back a long time ago to that galaxy far, far away, when Russell was nearing his critical, commercial, and personal rock bottom. I’m writing about 2007. After two unlikely indie hits (the Oedipal comedy Spanking the Monkey and the screwball throwback Flirting With Disaster) followed by his big-budget, star-driven Three Kings (with George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube), Russell had hit his first major snag with the zany philosophical comedy I Heart Huckabees, which premiered in 2004 to a puzzled reaction from both critics and ticket buyers.
But the biggest problem, for Russell, was the reports that had trickled out from the shoot. Stories about the writer-director’s on-set behavior had first begun to circulate around the filming of Three Kings. Russell made the mistake of clashing on set with the most likable man in Hollywood, George Clooney, and Clooney said that in one tussle the director called him a “pussy,” head-butted him, and grabbed him by the throat. (Clooney later called it “without exception, the worst experience of my life.”) But though the Kings crew differed over who was at fault for the squabbles, Clooney or Russell, the pattern became harder to deny with Huckabees. And the stories were downright bizarre: Under a headline describing Russell as “Borderline-Abusive,” the New York Times’ Sharon Waxman detailed how the auteur would agitate the crew by stripping down to his boxers, yelling, whispering into actresses’ ears (lewd things, they said), and grabbing Mark Wahlberg’s junk—all, apparently, to get the performances he wanted. That report came out in 2004, around Huckabees’ release, but the public’s interest in Russell’s antics peaked in 2007, when a long-circulating video that showed Russell and star Lily Tomlin in a screaming match finally made its way onto the Internet. Though Russell ended on good terms with most of the actors, according to interviews (“I love David,” Tomlin told the Miami New Times), what most people would remember was the footage of Russell calling Tomlin a “bitch” and a “cunt.”
It was at this time that Russell first began work on Nailed—and things did not get off to a good start. Within the first week of shooting, Russell got into a serious fight with cast member James Caan. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the two titans clashed over the best way to feign choking on a Girl Scout cookie:
Russell told Caan to cough and choke, but Caan argued that a person can’t both cough and choke to death at the same time. He reportedly left after Russell insisted they shoot the scene both ways.
Representatives for Caan wouldn’t comment on the reports but confirmed that the actor left the production due to “creative differences.” He was replaced by James Brolin.
The director seemed to be letting his explosive temper ruin everything all over again, just as Pat Jr. does again and again in Silver Linings. Fans who didn’t follow the trades closely probably still assume that this is what did the production in. But the real culprit, it turns out, was outside of Russell’s control.
The first serious sign of trouble came a couple weeks after Caan’s departure, when production was shut down for the first time. According to Deadline, the Screen Actors Guild ordered the actors off the set because they and the production’s other union members weren’t getting paid for their services. It wouldn’t be the last time. Over the next few weeks, production was shut down again and again and again. Soon producer David Bergstein and his distribution company ThinkFilm were getting sued for fraud. The complaint alleged that while cast and crew were coming up empty-handed, he was cruising the world on his yacht, splurging on new movies on the festival circuit. Russell is usually cautious when discussing the movie in interviews, due to the time it spent in litigation, but he will say that the movie suffered from “mysterious financing” that was “turned on and off like a faucet.” Ultimately, production was shut down nine times, according to Russell.
Though by all reports he wasn’t to blame for any of this, Russell’s reputation had hit its low point. (To cap things off, his marriage had just fallen apart, and he was struggling to take care of his bipolar son.) His knight in shining armor, though, proved to be Mark Wahlberg, who, after Darren Aronofsky left The Fighter, agitated to bring on his old friend and collaborator as the director, giving him the movie that would turn his career around. In the meantime star Jessica Biel was mourning Nailed, wondering aloud to the press about whether the movie would ever get finished.
Now is a good time to note that Nailed is a satire about the impossibility of reforming the United States’ health care system. Because on March 23, 2010, while the status of the movie was still up in the air, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law. A few weeks later, after three years of stops and starts, Russell officially quit the project, leaving the movie to be finished without him.
Watching Accidental Love now—it’s out in theaters and available on demand—it’s easy to see that Russell escaped at the right time. While the film, cobbled together without Russell’s involvement after years of failed edits (one version screened with a credit to the more Irish-sounding “David O’Russell”), does not arrive sporting stitches or missing reels, as many had feared, it is almost hilariously dated. Its primary gag is to point out how badly America needs health care reform legislation then nudge you in the ribs and say, “Like that’ll ever happen, right?” In 2015, these jokes fall flat.
The movie’s central conflict is initiated when 25-year-old roller waitress Alice (played by Biel) gets a nail in her brain that she can’t afford to have removed because at 22 she was taken off her parents insurance. We are supposed to see this as an injustice, but under Obamacare, of course, young adults can remain on their parents’ insurance until 26. Alice’s next thought is to get her own insurance, but she is quickly informed that providers will deny her because the nail in her head represents a pre-existing condition. Obamacare, of course, outlawed these kind of exclusions. The movie goes on like this, playing less like a bleak satire than a bizarre ad for the Affordable Care Act assembled in an alternate universe. One of the movie’s last lines comes when Alice, having gone all Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on Congress, finally manages to cajole the House into a vote. (Her suddenly uncontrollable sexual urges, triggered by the nail, have proved persuasive with Congressman Gyllenhaal.) Though the swelling musical score seems to herald a triumphant moment, the speaker announces, “The vote is completed. Health care loses like always.”
There is no universe in which Accidental Love would have been among Russell’s best films. As with I Heart Huckabees (a movie I love), it’s a movie of ideas whose characters don’t always make sense. With Alice, this is more or less the joke: The nail in her brain makes her behavior irrational (in addition to her nymphomania and some Russellian fits of anger, she’s prone to Tourette’s-like eruptions of Portuguese), which proves all-too-convenient for the screenplay. Russell has said that his biggest breakthrough, on The Fighter, was learning to simplify things and focus on character, and it’s easy to imagine that he might have been driven to this lesson by seeing the madness his decision to go to the opposite extreme unleashed every day on the Nailed set. (His other breakthrough has been “creating powerhouse women’s roles,” as he himself has said, and while the Alice character has its flaws, Nailed was set to be the first Russell film built around a female protagonist.)
But if progress in Washington (of all things!) hadn’t taken the wind out of its sails, Accidental Love would have been a fun movie. Even with a clumsy edit (there are even odd Foley effects inexplicably dubbed in, including a straight-up movie trailer–style record scratch) and a score that’s surely a long way from what Russell intended, I kind of liked it. And there are glimmers of the usual Russell-y magic. This is most obvious in his signature ensemble scenes, when the camera whips from one actor to the next in an effort to keep up with all their overlapping dialogue (usually shouted at high volume, and especially between family members). He also elicits big performances from actors like Biel, Gyllenhaal, and Catherine Keener, with James Marsden sharp as ever in his usual role of the handsome douche. The screenplay, loosely adapted from Kristin Gore’s novel Sammy’s Hill by Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein (The Man Show, The Cleveland Show) at times becomes unexpectedly crude, with jokes about a priest with priapism (Kurt Fuller) and a former body-builder with a rectal prolapse (Tracy Morgan). But even the dick jokes are in the service of ideas bigger and more political than those in the typical rom-com.
One of Accidental Love’s doofiest touches is an end-credits blooper reel, which tries to dupe the audience into thinking that it was all smiles on set. It’s not convincing. But watching it, I couldn’t help but think of the end of Silver Linings, when Pat’s whole family erupts into cheers not because they won the dance competition—far from it—but because their performance in a loss was just good enough that they’ll survive a little longer. It also reminded me of a scene earlier in Accidental Love. When the character once played by James Caan, now played by James Brolin, chokes to death on a cookie, Brolin goes down coughing.