Flirting with Disaster
Director: David O. Russell. Cast: Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Téa Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Celia Weston, David Patrick Kelly, Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Glenn Fitzgerald. Screenplay: David O. Russell.

The plain silliest of writer-director Russell's first three movies shares the glories and drawbacks of Spanking the Monkey and Three Kings, particularly its tendency to work brilliantly in moments but tremble and falter in the longterm. Ben Stiller, before he re-routed his career into disposable dreck, stars as Mel Colpin, an entomologist who has decided upon the birth of his first child to track down his own birth-parents. His adoptive parents are threatened and passive-aggressively discouraging, sometimes just aggressively discouraging. His wife is quietly supportive, though increasingly impatient with Mel's midlife distractability and wandering eye. The case worker/master's candidate who tags along on the couple's trip to Meet The Paents is an incompetent doof and an erotic rival. The first parent Mel finally meets turns out not to be his actual mother. In other words, little if any of the conception is anything new, and when unexpected variations do impose themselves on the basic structure—as when a couple of gay federal agents join the band of weary travelers—the script strains to finesse their inclusion, and seems off-puttingly self-congratulatory about its own "outrageousness."

If Russell is erratic with plot and the slightest bit smug in attitude, he makes up for these flaws by drawing fun, inspired performances from his ace cast, not only stoking their most eccentrically comic impulses but almost forbidding any obvious line readings or performance choices. Most of the half-dozen moments when I couldn't catch my breath for laughing wouldn't seem too funny if transcribed; it's the actors who light the whole movie. (The actual lighting sure isn't anything special, nor is the soundtrack, the editing, the hit-and-miss design.) Mostly, Russell has found just the right people to pull this off. Téa Leoni, one of our funniest and most squandered comic actresses, is a one-woman hootenanny from the moment she impulsively licks the wedding ring that her dizzy-divorcée character can't quite bear to take off. Leoni is the adoption researcher whose communiqués with the agency keep leading to all the trouble, and if her specific reactions to each new gaffe and embarrassment weren't so priceless, the recurring gag of her dismal failures would wither much sooner. Mary Tyler Moore has as much fun doing broad comedy as Lily Tomlin does keeping her zany character a little close to the vest. That hilariously long face of hers doesn't have to do anything to sell gem lines, as when she "reassures" her bizarre younger son, "Of course, we love you. Even if you were Jeffrey Dahmer, we would love you!"

The constant joke of Flirting with Disaster is that there's really no "of course" when anyone loves anyone. Families are inherently neurotic, marriages are always fragile, momentary lust turns to vapor under the pressures of commitment. When Mel finally chooses the family he wants out of several wacko contenders, his love for them is only then clear to him, or to us. It's a nice, ramshackle structure of comic anecdotes and dazzling zingers—and amid all the lunacy, for the first time in her career, Patricia Arquette comes across as the most rounded, most winningly appealing character. But for all this, Flirting with Disaster is a little wheezy, racing to cross the 90-minute mark when the story arc has been pretty well spent after 75. The half-scripted, half-improvised quality of several scenes is both the animating spark of the movie and a constant reminder of its gangly, under-conceptualized structure. David O. Russell may well have a great, sustained comedy somewhere up his sleeve, but for now, he's turning out good ones that have to push themselves hard, by hook or by crook, to cross the finish line. Grade: B–

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