Jessica Biel is the Very Best Thing About David O. Russell's Very Bad 'Accidental Love'

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After seven years, numerous production shut-downs, a title change, and one (literally and figuratively) resigned director, Stephen Greene’s Accidental Love — a.k.a. David O. Russell’s Nailed — is finally available for public consumption. The political satire, which the American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook writer-director started shooting way back in 2008, opens in limited theatrical release Feb. 20, but can be watched right now on various VOD and streaming services, including Amazon Instant and iTunes. Given Accidental Love’s tattered history, it’s no surprise that the finished product is a knotted tangle of half-finished scenes, story threads and satirical jabs that’s been stitched together into something that passes for a feature film. But amidst the mess, there’s an unexpectedly powerful force that almost binds the movie together: Jessica Biel.

You’d be right to be surprised. At the time of filming — and even more so today — Biel’s been stuck with B-list status ,despite repeated attempts to make the leap to superstardom. Over the years, she’s tried just about every genre to reinvent herself, from cult indie movies (2002’s The Rules of Attraction) to horror hits (the 2003 Texas Chainsaw Massacre reboot) to would-be blockbusters (the epic 2005 bomb Stealth). The only movie that clicked with audiences and critics was the magic-themed drama The Illusionist, which became a modest late-summer hit in 2006.  

By the time Biel signed on to Nailed, she’d just hit a new low, playing the requisite Hot Girl in an Adam Sandler comedy (2007’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry). She was no doubt hoping that a collaboration with an offbeat, independent-minded director like Russell would open yet another new avenue in her career.

It’s worth remembering that this was a risky choice back in 2008, when the filmmaker was coming off the commercial disappointment of I Heart Huckabees, a great film that’s nevertheless best known for the widely circulated viral video of Russell and Lily Tomlin screaming at each other on set. The director’s unconventional working methods have been well-documented, and seem to alternately challenge and annoy actors in equal measure. Since the 2010 boxing drama The Fighter revitalized his career (and, as Steven Hyden’s exhaustive Grantland analysis argues, fundamentally changed him as a director) Russell has once again been embraced by Hollywood’s A-list stars, but at the time he started work on Nailed he needed an actress willing to take a gamble on him and the movie’s oddball premise: After a freak accident leaves uninsured small town girl Alice (Biel), with a nail embedded in her skull, she takes her case for an affordable health care bill all the way to Washington D.C., with the help of her bumbling, but super-cute Congressman (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Obviously, that storyline is instantly dated in this post-Obamacare era, and there are other moments that feel confined to the distant past as well, whether it’s an extended sequence where the Speaker of the House (played by James Brolin, who replaced James Caan after the latter walked off the set) chokes on a cookie—deliberately reminiscent of George W. Bush’s pretzel incident — or a running joke involving a moon-stationed military base, which is even more of a pipe dream these days since NASA’s space shuttle program has been shut down. Even the filmmaking style is distinctly old-school, with Russell working in the broad, heightened vein of his earlier work rather than the more polished, down-to-Earth visuals on display in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. (You’d never catch the post-Fighter Russell using as many off-kilter Dutch angles as he does here.)

Of course, since Russell walked away from the movie in 2010 following a reported dispute with the financiers, it’s hard to say how much, if at all, this released version reflects his vision. The one aspect of Accidental Love that’s absolutely a David O. Russell joint, however, is the way he pushes his lead actress out of her comfort zone, and how she responds with a career-best performance. Like Amy Adams in American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, Tea Leoni in Flirting with Disaster and, going way back, Alberta Watson in Spanking the Monkey, Biel is required to navigate tricky and, for her, unfamiliar territory throughout the film, playing a deliberately contradictory character whose moods and motivations can change on a dime thanks to the nail in her noggin.

Far from being flummoxed by the demands of the part, the actress is completely in the moment in every scene, reacting to and building upon every wild, out-there bit of business that the narrative and her co-stars throw at her. From moment to moment, Alice can be crazy, hilarious, passionate and serious, and Biel ensures that every emotion tracks. She’s certainly more successful at this than a visibly out-of-his-depth Gyllenhaal, still a few years shy of his own personal McConaissance in End of Watch and Nightcrawler… and never a natural comic actor anyway. (See Bubble Boy.)

Had Accidental Love been released on schedule and with Russell’s full creative involvement, it might have allowed the movie-going public and the industry at large to view Biel in a very different light. After the film vanished into the vault, she was once again relegated to being attractive window-dressing in such dude-driven action spectacles as The A-Team and Total Recall, and below-the-title supporting parts in disposable romances like Valentine’s Day and Playing for Keeps. Maybe Accidental Love is destined to go down as a career fluke, but Biel’s performance is transformative enough to make you hope that another filmmaker sees past the movie’s rough edges and missed opportunities and writes a part that challenges her again. After all, something positive should come out of what otherwise seems like an unhappy accident.