“This is the most disorganized household.”
Pre-med student, Raymond Aibelli (Jeremy Davies), comes home during the summer for a few days. He’s due to go onto Washington for a prestigious internship at the Surgeon General’s office. When he arrives home, his dad–a traveling salesman–abruptly tells Raymond that he has to stay home and nurse his mother. She has a compound fracture and is bed-bound. Raymond’s protests fall on deaf ears. Raymond’s selfish and controlling father seems to think that Raymond can just pick up the internship another time. So Raymond is stuck at home with his mother while his dad hits the road.
The film Spanking the Monkey is a perfect example of Tolstoy’s quote from Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Aibelli family–to use a well-worn phrase–is a dysfunctional family. On the outside, they seem quite rather average, but in the confines of their home ….
Raymond’s father is free of his family while he takes these extended sales trips. He has freedom of movement, but he also dumps the whole ‘family man’ routine. His wife, on the other hand, is literally stuck in bed, and Raymond is stuck taking care of her. But the situation is far worse than that–both Raymond and his mother are prisoners of the rules laid down for them–these rules include strict use of the car and regulations regarding the dog’s exercise. Why both the mother and the son obey such intricate and pointless rules is a testament to the family dynamic they are engaged in. No one rocks the boat–no one frankly disobeys, and as a result, they all suffer.
On top of Raymond’s dashed dreams of the internship (and his sacrifice is largely ignored), he struggles with questions about his masculinity from former high school friends, and even the 16 year-old daughter of a neighbouring psychiatrist questions Raymond’s feelings towards girls.
Spanking the Monkey deals with issues of independence–all three members of the Aibelli family view each other as roles–rather than as individuals, and they each fail to see each other’s unhappiness. While the father maintains some sort of rogue male status, both Raymond’s mother and Raymond are cast into roles that deny individual need. It’s no real shock that Raymond’s selfish father should imagine that he rates above everyone else, but Raymond and his mother also fail to accept each other as individuals. For this summer, Raymond exists to nurse his mother, and she exists as a weight around his neck. There’s virtually no privacy, and they are stuck in trapped intimacy. Spanking the Monkey is the biggest argument I’ve seen for why children need space of their own. The film may sound bleak and depressing, but the dilemmas faced by the characters are laced with irony and black humour, and the film, ultimately is engaging and insightful. If you haven’t seen the film and are interested in the subject matter, I recommend it highly. From writer/director David O. Russell.