Flirting with Disaster

flirting-with-disaster-1996-ben-stiller-patricia-arquette-tea-leoni-pic-1Flirting with Disaster starts off with a Republican-friendly unit — successful husband, pretty wife, adorable newborn son — and proceeds to trash every possible familial concept.Clearly, this theme is close to David O. Russell’s jaded heart. His previous film, Spanking the Monkey, was a jet-black comedy about an ailing mom who seduces her hapless college-age son. Yet for all his cynicism, Russell doesn’t hate his characters. He sees them as deeply confused human beings whose struggles to preserve family unity are in direct proportion to their inability to do so. His scripts are also rude and profane, which is a big plus.

Flirting with Disaster follows yuppie Mel (Ben Stiller), his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), and their unnamed baby on a quest across America. Mel, whose new fatherhood has rattled him, thinks that finding his biological parents will give him a better idea of “who he is.” His overbearing adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal, both hilarious) think it’s a stupid idea, and the movie keeps proving them right.

Mel and Nancy are guided, more or less, by a woman from the adoption agency — Tina (Tea Leoni), one of those people whose confident facade hides the fact that they have no idea what they’re doing. Tina leads the couple to one false parent after another, and this section of the movie gets a little elitist; we’re meant to be mortified by the idea that a Reagan-worshipping woman or a scruffy truck driver could be Mel’s real parents. Then Mel and company arrive in Arizona, where they finally meet the real McCoys — Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, who quickly take over the movie. Playing these ex-hippies (who still drop acid and have their own pharmacological lab in the cellar), the comedy veterans work together so smoothly that Flirting with Disaster would be worth seeing just for their scenes, even if the rest of the movie were junk.

Fortunately, it isn’t. David O. Russell has a sharp ear for satirical dialogue, and he loves to put his characters in the kinds of horrific, embarrassing situations that make you hide your face even as you’re laughing. Like The Birdcage, Flirting with Disaster is a farce — a machine that rolls slowly but surely into chaos. It also rolls right over such things as logic and credibility, but that’s the nature of farce. Usually, some lesson emerges from the wreckage. Here, as in Spanking the Monkey, it’s that the imperfect family unit itself isn’t nearly as destructive as the expectations we attach to it. The pain and comedy of families lie in the distance between the ideal and the reality. In his cheerfully twisted way, Russell is making the healthiest, sanest comedies around — entertainment for the whole dysfunctional family.

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