It’s not hard to see what director David O. Russell, who shot this film years before his ascension as a reliable purveyor of misleadingly hip pap, was after in Accidental Love. The film is supposed to be a stylized farce of escalating satiric absurdity—a mix of Legally Blonde with the kind of hostile metaphoric comedy that Matt Stone and Trey Parker have mastered on South Park. Right away, the plot indicates the social hyperbole that’s intended. Alice (Jessica Biel) is a small-town woman, as naïve as small-town people always are in smug Hollywood comedies, who’s accidentally shot in the head with a nail gun while being proposed to by her hunky cop boyfriend (James Marsden, giving the performance that’s least damaged by the film’s pervasive ineptitude). The nail lodges in her brain, and Alice can’t afford to have surgery because she doesn’t have insurance. Alice can’t sue the cheesy Italian restaurant that’s responsible for her injury either, because, well, the film addresses that in a throwaway line that doesn’t make any sense even by the rules of this fantasy world. The point is that Alice goes to Washington to petition for the provision of public healthcare, discovering that capital city is a thicket of politicians who’re tending to meaningless personal grudges and hungers.
The cultural climate is, to put it lightly, ripe for a satire about the perils of obtaining healthcare. Even though shooting on this film was initiated two years before the Affordable Care Act was passed, the ensuing controversies, lawsuits, and bitter partisan campaigns to revoke it have ensured that a good film on such a subject would not only not age, it might even look prescient. But Accidental Love is pointedly stupid and tone deaf. Beyond the occasional obligatory utterance of words like “healthcare” and “socialist” (the latter of which is used here, as it is in reality by the GOP, to characterize any political action that takes into account the concerns of the lower middle class), the film doesn’t make any gestures that could draw blood. The set pieces are chummy and lifeless, reducing a potent satirical subject to a vague non-issue. The film portrays the politicians of the White House in a fashion that’s reminiscent of 30 Rock’s treatment of its fictional executives of parent company NBC: insidiously as a bunch of greedy yet ultimately harmless fuddy-duddies. This is mockery as hypocritical tribute.
It might sound absurd to complain that a parody lacks verisimilitude, but this film is so flimsily constructed, visually and narratively, that it resembles a middle-school play that’s been hastily filmed on an antique camcorder. Awkward, badly lit, spatially incoherent group shots that have obviously been filmed on the fly (a liability that abounds even in Russell’s more respected films) govern the aesthetics, while the White House is geographically defined as a series of anonymous hallways that could just as easily belong to an abandoned OfficeMax. A legislative amendment is portrayed as a passing whim that someone, and not even someone in elected office, can verbally tack onto a bill arbitrarily at the moment of voting for it (an idea that might’ve been funny if it scanned as intentionally absurd, rather than as dramatically necessary). An organization clearly modeled after the Girl Scouts is shown to be a source of key lobbyists in a purposefully ludicrous, and brutally unfunny, development. The agenda that’s backed by the villainous politician (Catherine Keener) is the construction of a moon base that she obsesses over because she was once a prominent astronaut. The point, of course, is that a moon base is a trivial bauble meant to court an instant “wow” reaction from an audience that can’t be bothered to fight for real, less glamourous rights. But this concept is inescapably lame.
Admittedly, a film has to go to pretty wild extremes to top the absurdities that are routinely publicly slung by, say, the Tea Party, which appears to be an inspiration for some of the film’s punchlines, though Accidental Love is infuriatingly timid even in defining political identities. This is a comedy about trying to pass affordable healthcare in the White House, the very definition of partisan legislation, and the words “Republican” or “Democrat” are never once uttered. Instead, we’re given long sequences that feature people in the woods doing tribal dances, Kirstie Alley performing drunken head surgery, and James Brolin choking on faux-Girl Scout cookies. Sometimes the jokes are so bug-fuck misguided as to stun the occasional burst of disbelieving laughter out of you. One can see why Russell, who eventually assumed the pseudonym Stephen Greene as a response to the film’s myriad difficulties, became so conventional a director following this disaster. You wouldn’t want to risk hanging your ass this far out to dry again either.