Squint hard enough and it’s possible to see the sharper, more inspired comedy David O. Russell might have made out of Accidental Love. Technically speaking, and as much as Russell would surely like to forget it, the film is at least half his. Seven years ago, a small eternity in showbiz time, he began work on a political comedy called Nailed, starring Jessica Biel as a roller waitress who gets a nail lodged in her brain and heads to Washington to spark a healthcare revolution. Based on a novel by Kristin Gore (who co-wrote the script), and featuring an impressive ensemble of acting talent, the project was to be Russell’s triumphant follow-up to I Heart Huckabees. Instead, it suffered insurmountable financial setbacks, with production halting no less than eight or nine separate times. Russell finally walked away in 2010—the same year he revitalized his career with The Fighter—leaving Nailed to languish in limbo for another half-decade. It arrives now with a generic new title, a fake name on the byline (Stephen Greene, as Alan Smithee was apparently indisposed), and reportedly a few extra scenes inserted throughout.
If there’s any good news here, it’s that, despite rumors to the contrary, Accidental Love is very much a coherent movie. It’s not incomplete; it’s just been sloppily completed—cobbled together, in other words, by filmmakers (or distribution cronies) looking to salvage a releasable product out of footage crying out to be reshot or reworked. Yet traces of Russell’s spirit, a humane screwball exuberance, poke through the compromised results. It’s there in the way the movie keeps stuffing a bunch of yammering eccentrics in a room together, and also in the bug-eyed performance the director coaxes out of Jake Gyllenhaal, whose character—a flip-flopping, libidinous politician—could have fit neatly into American Hustle. Russell fans owe it to themselves to see this disowned disaster, painful as that act of completism will be.
To be fair to whoever refashioned Accidental Love from the abandoned scraps of Nailed, there’s little reason to believe that the ideal, untroubled version of the material would have been a comedic masterstroke. Gore, daughter of Al and a one-time Futurama staffer, offers a satire of partisan politics best enjoyed by those who have never watched an episode of The Daily Show—or for that matter, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Frank Capra himself might have appreciated the anachronistic flavor of the film’s opening hometown scenes, during which Alice (Biel) suffers her unfortunate accident. Unable to afford the necessary brain surgery, the plucky heroine decamps for D.C., a comic-relief entourage in tow, where she romances/enlists the help of a party puppet (Gyllenhaal, rocking a real Mitt Romney look) and butts heads with a callous senator (Catherine Keener) drudging up support for a moon-base initiative.
Had the film opened back in 2008, the focus on healthcare reform might have seemed timely, even prescient; post-Obamacare, its specific take now just seems behind-the-times. Anyway, with Russell (sort of) at the helm, Accidental Love is less interested in congressional law than the chaos theory of human interaction—the chief focus of all his farces, from the early indies to the recent Oscar magnets. A least a couple of the actors get on the proper wavelength. As the fickle park ranger who dumps Alice when her condition seems less than temporary, James Marsden makes for a fine and funny heel. And Gyllenhaal, who at one point escapes a sticky situation by literally leaping out a window, shows flashes of the manic energy he’d better exploit in the years to come. But the love triangle never sparks, in part because Alice’s behavior is largely dictated by that piece of metal wedged into her cranium. Her first pangs of attraction to Gyllenhaal’s frazzled congressman are provoked by a bump on the head—and the movie, tickled by the absurdity of their initial hookup, never takes the time to establish any credible chemistry between them.
Like most of Russell’s comedies, Accidental Love bursts at the seams with supporting characters, most played by a revolving door of name actors. (Paul Reubens! James Brolin! Kirstie Alley!) But orchestrating so much talent requires talent of its own; without Russell calling the shots in the editing room, individual moments veer violently off tone, hijacked by competing personalities. (Tracy Morgan, doing a variation on his usual shtick, frequently threatens to derail entire scenes.) Watching this hatchet job, one is reminded how crucial timing is to Russell’s invaluable signature comedy—a controlled chaos that only looks effortless, as it requires knowing precisely when to cut from one screaming character to another. Russell, a master juggler, would have kept the balls in the air. He also never would have signed off on using an audible, non-diegetic record scratch as a punchline. That alone might be cause to get your name off a film.
Accidental Love is available now on VOD and digital platforms. It opens in limited release on February 20.