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Flirting with Disaster

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 12 February 1999

  Directed by David O. Russell

Starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette,
Tea Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal,
David Patrick Kelly, Richard Jenkins, Josh Brolin,
Alan Alda, and Lily Tomlin.

On the heels of the phenomenon that There’s Something About Mary has become, moviegoers rifling through Ben Stiller’s past works will find an even more hilarious tale in 1997’s Flirting With Disaster. The sophomore directorial effort by David O. Russell, the man who gave us 1995’s incest-centered comedy Spanking the Monkey (starring Jeremy Davies, before his rave-inducing portrayal of the cowardly solider in "Saving Private Ryan"), Flirting With Disaster boasts a doozy of an ensemble script that churns forth some of the most bizarre scenarios and interesting characters ever concocted. Its crowning achievement, however, is how real and inevitable it makes such individuals and situations.

Russell’s writing isn’t as flashy as that of fellow Miramax property Quentin Tarantino. He prefers to overlap dialogue into a seamless, natural pattern (think Robert Altman). You’re not going to find any hip, bible-quoting hit men here, but among indie scripts, his subtle interplay in the face of not-so-subtle crises puts Flirting With Disaster’s wordplay at the same level of genius as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. And its laughs emerge from the personalities of its dynamic array of fully drawn characters, not from shock-laden sight gags like those relied upon by There’s Something About Mary. Russell tosses together a patchwork of plot lines involving a bisexual federal agent with an armpit-licking fetish, the demolition of a post office via 18-wheel truck, and the lacing of a quail dinner with acid. Then there’s Mary Tyler Moore demonstrating the benefits of a wonder bra, a defensive little troll of a bed and breakfast owner, and the search by an adopted son for his biological parents gone horribly, disastrously awry. And there’s truth to be found among the plausible laughs that result.

The adoption story acts as the backbone of the film. Ben Stiller plays Mel Coplin, a nervous, adopted thirtysomething with a wife and infant child who obsesses over the notion of life with his natural parents. The opening montage and narrative set the scene, with Stiller in Woody Allen mode, critiquing the assorted pedestrians walking an urban Manhattan sidewalk and sizing them up as potential mothers and fathers. Random men and women are stalked by Russell’s lens, and a voiceover narrative acts as matchmaker: "My real mom could be rich and smart (camera observing a well-dressed businesswoman with a determined gait), or rich and stupid " (camera observing a pompous matron, enshrouded by mink furs with an entourage of poodles). It’s an inspired introduction.

Eventually, Coplin’s home life is brought into focus. His long-suffering wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) attempts to seduce him, but conjugal duties are put on hold after the announcement that he has found his real mother, courtesy Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), a flighty waif of an adoption counselor. Kalb expresses her agency’s willingness to foot the bill for a reunion, under the condition that she go along to document the event. A leggy ex-dancer, Tina wins Mel’s flirtatious advances while posing a threat to Nancy. Arquette shows the passive resignation and sadness of a new mother, insecure of her own attractiveness ("If my boobs sag, they’ve gonna sag, and there’s nothing I can do about it."), who is unfairly upstaged by her husband as he wages his self-involved, parent-finding crusade. Meanwhile, Coplin’s adoptive parents are played by Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal as touchy, shrill neurotics. They perceive their son’s project as a direct threat ("We’ve failed completely", weeps the menopausal Moore) when Mel announces his plan to trek cross-country to San Diego and meet his natural mother Valerie (Celia Weston).

At this point, Flirting with Disaster turns into a road movie in which characters accumulate and the molasses-thick brew of a plot becomes increasingly complex. The trip begins with Mel and Nancy toting along Tina as a witness to the mother-son reunion. But over time, after it’s revealed that Valerie is not Mel’s biological parent, the entourage grows during efforts to salvage the journey. An encounter with a sleazy truck driver, played by the wild-eyed character actor David Patrick Kelly (a regular of Walter Hill’s urban crime thrillers, including 48 Hrs. and The Warriors), begins in would-be salvation. Mistaking the grizzled driver for his father, Mel receives a paternal bear hug from the one-time Hell’s Angel, who exclaims, "I dropped a lot of baby batter in my time, but this is the first son I’ve ever seen!" Then it ends horrifically as Mel backs the trucker’s rig into a post office.

Interrogated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms over the wreck, the Coplins meet two gay Federal Agents (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin), who join the rerouted road trip to New Mexico, home of Mel’s true parents, the Shlicktings (Alan Alda and Lilly Tomlin). Products of the Grateful Dead counterculture, complete with a basement acid lab and a spiteful son Lonny who spikes one of the agents’ meals with hallucinogenics, the Shlicktings explain to Mel that they were "predisposed" after his birth, thrown in jail for the manufacturing of LSD. "I must admit that I was relieved when you were born with just one head", explains Tomlin nonchalantly. On the sidelines, an impending affair looms near between Nancy and one of the Federal Agents, who reassigns his orientation to "bisexual" after acknowledging an attraction to Mel’s neglected wife.

Ultimately, the film ties up all of these loose ends and messy relationships in a hopeful, honest, and completely plausible finale. Passive-aggressive might serve to best summarize the tone of Flirting With Disaster’s multitude of dysfunctional relationships: Nancy’s subtle rage at Mel for ignoring her, Mel’s jealousy towards her would-be Federal Agent suitor, Lonny’s insecure fear of newfound brother Mel, Moore’s suspicions of Tina and her enabling of the true-parent search. Even so, Russell finds humanity and sympathy in each and every oddball that’s dredged up from under the stones that his film turns up. His camera examines all this pathos under a microscope, following each conversation in a jerky, hand-held style: the plentiful, often venomous chitchat comes across like The Player crossed with the first half-hour of Saving Private Ryan. It’s not often that a movie can be this thought provoking without defusing the comedy, but Flirting With Disaster is every bit as uproarious as the far more shallow Stiller showcase There’s Something About Mary. Rent both movies for a weekend laugh-a-thon, and see which one resonates longest.

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