Cinematic history is littered with the “could have been”s. Orson Welles’ original cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. And now, sort of, David O’Russell’s Nailed, which shot in 2008 and ran out of funding, leading Russell to leave the project in 2010. He would go on to make Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Retitled Accidental Love and credited to Stephen Greene, the film is only now seeing the light of day. It’s impossible to know how it would play without knowing the backstory, but it feels like a broken film. The music and editing scream broad comedy while everything else pulls towards political satire. It’s already proved its worth as a curiosity (not least for the circa 2008 supporting turns by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tracy Morgan), but can it stand by itself as a film?
The answer is not really. When waitress Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel) is shot in the head with a nail gun, she starts a political campaign to reform the healthcare system. Along the way we learn that politicians are sleazy and corrupt and that the US spends a lot of money on its military yet little on healthcare. Even those soft insights are blunted by recent political developments in the real world, namely Obamacare. The goalposts, the targets for the comedy, keep changing. Are we meant to laugh at Alice, laugh with her, or care about her? Ditto for Congressman Howard Birdwell (Gyllenhaal), who changes allegiances literally every scene, although Catherine Keener in the villain role and Morgan as comic relief have a bit more consistency.
Nevertheless, Biel has a winning comic presence, and sells each aspect of her character even if they never quite gel together. She begins as a naïve small-town woman waiting for her buffoonish fiancé (James Marsden) to marry her and becomes a passionate political campaigner who behaves unpredictably and might be nymphomaniac. There’s a lot of potential in that personality change, triggered with her accident but too much of it is off screen (as is the moment of her first orgasm, which surely should have been a major development). The question is never raised of what would happen to her personality if or when the nail is removed, which should have been the actual dilemma for the character rather than the thin love triangle. Again, the same original footage edited and scored differently could have made her into a very compelling heroine. There are some striking dutch angles (where the camera is tilted 45 degrees or more), but the colour scheme is garish, over-saturated and over-contrasty, like a TV movie.