Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and Tea Leoni
USA, 1996


Flirting With Disaster, the second film from idiosyncratic writer/director David O. Russell, is a quirky family comedy with much to recommend it. Russell's metier clearly seems to be The Family (his first film was the incest-themed Spanking the Monkey), and his ideas here have to do with the comforts of familial relationships and the relative absurdity of a search for oneís absolute genetic roots. To this end, he enlists the aid of a cast of forlorn 20-somethings (Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni), madcap grownups (Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda), and assorted weirdo character actors. It takes a little while for all these disparate elements to gel, and when they do, Flirting With Disaster is at its best -- engaging and thoughtful, but not exactly compelling.

As Mel Copland, a new father who was adopted as an infant and is now enlisting the help of Tina Kalb (Leoni), a curious psychiatrist who wants to observe him as he meets his "real" parents, Stiller bounces off everyone else in the cast, but remains dishearteningly deadpan. Heís the essential emotional center of this ensemble cast, and maybe itís a calculated risk that his character is a complete blank -- but itís a misstep. Stillerís way too flat in this role. His early scenes with Arquette are painstakingly authentic but stiff, and as a result, itís hard to believe in these two as a couple. Worse, Moore and (especially) George Segal canít really work their own characters. They play Stillerís adoptive parents, and their first bickering scene is disastrously off-tempo, with even conscientious editing unable to punch up their stilted delivery.

Itís all too easy to identify with Arquette, whoís just great as Stillerís goodhearted but underappreciated and exasperated partner, Nancy. Leoni is certainly easy to watch, and she leads the film solidly through its three distinct episodes, taking Mel and Nancy (Arquette) in hand -- infant in tow -- on a trip to San Diego, where Mel will be reunited with his biological mother. Or not. If it were really that simple, Russell wouldnít have his madcap farce. As a matter of course, we learn thereís been a mix-up and the maternal figure that Mel has already come to awkward terms with is not, in fact, his mother. In a predictably comic turn of events, our intrepid explorer winds up zig-zagging into Michigan and finally tracking down his predestiny in New Mexico.

Flirting With Disaster is at itís best when it figures out where it wants to be. In this case, itís at Mel's biological home away from home, where Tomlin and Alda chew up the scenery as an old married couple with a thing for crafts, LSD, and the Grateful Dead. And the chemistry between Stiller and Arquette is a little better when theyíre given something to fight over -- namely, Melís psychosexual attraction to surrogate mother figure Tina and Nancyís latent response to old high school friend Tony (Josh Brolin, who shows up as a bisexual FBI agent). Itís indicative of the filmís easy charm that these relationships are acknowledged and even acted on, but never consummated -- like a TV sitcom, the ensuing zaniness doesn't jeopardize the essential happy family that seems to be key to the director's thesis. Me, I was waiting for the bottom to fall out. Russellís characters are incorrigible flirts, and it's admirable that Mel and Nancy can be true to one another, but wouldn't it be a more interesting story if disaster had in fact struck, forcing them to come to terms with each other as they figured out how to pick up the pieces?

A completely subjective archive

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer