It doesn’t seem like a stretch to call the project once known as Nailed and once directed by David O. Russell as doomed from the very start. The project seemed too stridently, bizarrely wacky to ever truly succeed.
The project began life in 2008 as an adaptation of (Al’s daughter and Futurama writer) Kristin Gore’s novel Sammy’s Hill, which explored the issue of universal health care from a unique angle. The film tells the story of Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel), a waitress who is accidentally hit in the head with a nail while at dinner at a fancy restaurant where her handsome cop boyfriend Scott (James Mardsen) is planning to propose.
This nail inside her head causes extreme mood swings in Alice; burdening her with fierce bouts of anger, lust, and the ability to speak Portuguese. So in a twisted contemporary take on The Wizard Of Oz and Alice In Wonderland, this brain damaged innocent sashays on down the road to Washington — alongside fellow sufferers Keyshawn (Tracy Jordan), who is afflicted with a prolapsed anus, and a reverend (Kurt Fuller) who has lost his faith — to agitate for universal health care. In D.C, Alice makes a powerful enemy of Representative Pam Hendrickson (Catherine Keener), a former astronaut obsessed with building a moon base for personal rather than political reasons. The cast also includes Jake Gyllenhaal and Bill Hader.
Nailed was supposed to be Russell’s follow-up to 2004’s I Heart Huckabee’s and the universe generally only allows filmmakers to make one movie that crazily self-indulgent before making them play by the rules. If anything, Nailed was even crazier than I Heart Huckabee’s and when it kept getting shut down, I suspected if it might be for the best. It seemed like Russell was spared an epic boondoggle when he left Nailed behind and became the respectable, improbably commercial filmmaker behind the Oscar-magnet trio The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.
And yet, Nailed bounced onto home video last month with a new title, Accidental Love, and Russell’s name nowhere to be found (the credited director is “Stephen Greene”).
This raises a series of provocative questions. When a filmmaker disowns their work, who does it belong to? The money people that contracted unknown hacks to finish it? Audiences that might love it for precisely the reason its creators abandoned it? Or does it ultimately belong to nobody? Are we betraying our favorite artists when we see work they would rather have buried or are we honoring them by seeing even work they’re ashamed of?
Disowned and abandoned films are a depressingly common phenomenon. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross famously discouraged people from seeing Run, Ronnie, Run. Recently, Paul Schrader, Anton Yelchin and Nicolas Winding Refn sought to dissuade people from seeing The Dying Of The Light after it was taken away from Schrader. Robert Towne was so unhappy with the changes to the Oscar-nominated script he co-wrote for Greystoke: The Legend Of Tarzan, Lord Of The Apes that he listed as his screenwriting credit, “P.H Vazak”, the name of his dog.
To cite an example closer to home, my friends Todd Hanson and Rob Siegel wrote The Onion Movie, a sketch comedy movie that, like Accidental Love/Nailed, sat on a shelf for a long time before being dumped onto home video in 2008 after pretty much everyone involved disowned it, including Rob, Todd and The Onion. To this day, I have not seen The Onion Movie largely out of loyalty. I wouldn’t want my friends to read a book credited to me that had been taken out of my hands and re-written extensively by another person, so I understand why they wouldn’t want people to see something that, while credited to them, does not represent their vision or their voice, or does so in a hopelessly compromised form.
Even after Russell left Nailed, production continued. I had assumed the project was dead so when a Blu-Ray called Accidental Love that was cobbled together from the remains of Nailed arrived on my desk I was gobsmacked. The little movie fate seemingly ordained would never see the light of day was finally being released in a mutated form.
But I don’t have the kind of emotional investment in Russell’s work I do in Rob and Todd’s. I’m a fan, not a friend, and while Accidental Love feels unmistakably compromised it also feels a lot like a Russell movie. The Blu-Ray cover conveys the astonishing lack of effort that went into packaging the film. To complete the indignity, the tagline now reads, “Sometimes You Nail Love…Sometimes it nails you.” Accidental Love is less a proper follow-up to I Heart Huckabee’s than a cinematic Frankenstein’s Monster crudely assembled out of random parts, some of which originated with Russell, some of which did not. So when I popped the Blu-Ray into the machine I braced myself for the worst.
I don’t want to overrate Accidental Love. Tonally, it’s a mess. It’s an unwieldy combination of strident message movie, screwball comedy, live-action cartoon and daffy romance that never comes close to finding a tone, let alone sticking with it. Morgan is neutered as the heroine’s sidekick and the film’s tortured production can be felt not just in jarring tonal shifts but also in pacing, music and structure that feel hopelessly off.
Accidental Love was fucked by timing. It has the misfortune to be a pre-Obamacare health care comedy released in a post-Obamacare age. So there’s a sense that Alice is fighting a war that has largely been won. Yet for all its flaws and its unfortunate timing, Accidental Love is a surprisingly funny, vibrant and charming little sleeper once expectations have been lowered accordingly.
The film’s surprises begin with Biel’s performance. Biel has never been much of a critic’s darling but she gives an almost scarily committed performance here. There are no ironic air quotes around her lines, no glib detachment. She is a woman of fierce and unpredictable sincerity whose brain damage causes her to fly into rages the film doesn’t judge. It’s a funny performance but there’s an underlying sadness to it as well, since she’s simultaneously blessed with a holy mission — to bring health care to the suffering masses — and not in control of her scary emotions for extended periods of time.
The film that became Accidental Love was always going to be a curious proposition. It’s a slapstick manifesto, the goofiest possible movie about a serious subject. It shouldn’t work, and for long stretches it doesn’t, alternating between zany comedy and strident sermonizing. It feels a good three or four edits away from being a proper Russell comedy but it would be a mistake to discard it just because Russell has.
We tend to think of directors as the authors of films, whether they wrote them or not. But film is an intrinsically collaborative medium. So if we discard Accidental Love because it’s not the movie Russell set out to make, we end up discarding a borderline brilliant comic performance from Biel, an inspired turn from Gyllenhaal and some wonderful moments that may not congeal into a satisfying whole but at least provide ample evidence of the candy-colored, naughty-nice political satire Russell set out to make.
In the end, these weird little orphans belong less to the creators who disowned them than cultists who embrace these odd little outliers both for the ways they connect with other, non-disowned films in important filmmaker’s careers, as well as all the ways they don’t. They belong less to the folks who orphaned them than the fans who adopted them despite their myriad flaws and imperfections, perhaps because it is those very imperfections that make them poignantly, unmistakably human.
Nathan Rabin served as the head writer of The A.V. Club for most of his 16-year career there. He is also the author of four books, including 2009’s memoir The Big Rewind; 2010’s My Year Of Flops, a book of essays about failed film; 2012’s Weird Al: The Book, a coffee-table book about the life and career of “Weird Al” Yankovic, which Rabin co-wrote with the beloved pop icon; and 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, an exploration of musical subcultures focused on the time Rabin spent following Insane Clown Posse and Phish. He lives in Chicago with his wife and dog and tweets at @nathanrabin.