In Flirting With Disaster, writer-director David O. Russell continues to tap into the fertile subject of family to create his edgy comedies. In his first film, 1994's acid-washed Spanking the Monkey, Russell fashioned a sensitive, understated black comedy out of his nineteen-year-old male protagonist's confusion over sexual politics, masturbation, and oedipal stirrings. In Disaster, Russell lightens up considerably, flirting with tough questions about what constitutes a family but backing off whenever the going threatens to get really nasty.
At first glance Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller doing his best bargain-basement Seinfeld) appears to have it all: interesting career, loving wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), healthy newborn baby. But Mel has never shaken the feeling that something is missing from his life, a product of his being adopted. So with the help of Tina (Tea Leoni), a dancer-turned-psychologist who chronicles reunions of adopted children with their biological parents, Mel bundles up his wife and infant son and sets off on a cross-country trek to locate the folks who gave him up decades earlier.
Problems abound. Mel's neurotic adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal in top comic form) can't understand why their son "has to do this Roots thing." The adoption agency's records prove far from infallible. Nancy, already frustrated by Mel's waning passion after the birth of their child, sees his sudden obsession with finding his biological parents as an attempt to distance himself further from their budding nuclear family. And Nancy can't help noticing that Tina -- 30, desperate for a baby, in the middle of a divorce -- still has a dancer's lethal gams.
Filmmaker Russell's ability to turn a clever phrase, so evident in Spanking the Monkey, remains intact. So does his penchant for placing his characters in awkward, uncomfortable situations. But where his first film delved deeply into one character's dilemma, Flirting With Disaster goes off in a dozen different directions and never paints a satisfying portrait of any of its three principals. Mel flirts with Tina, and Nancy knows exactly what he's up to, but writer-director Russell fails to give us a compelling reason to root for the married couple.
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Only a hard-core romantic traditionalist who believes in the sanctity of marriage (does anyone like that still exist?) will give a damn how far Nancy might let her husband stray and what effect Mel's potential affair could have on their marriage. And to alienate that viewer, the movie goes off on yet another ill-advised tangent, introducing an old flame of Nancy's -- studly ex-high school football star turned federal agent Tony (Josh Brolin). (Apparently Russell isn't familiar with that old saw about two wrongs not making a right.) It becomes impossible to take any of the action seriously. By the time Mel, Nancy, Tina, Tony, the baby, and Tony's lover all show up on the doorstep of Mel's real parents' house, the filmmaker has allowed Flirting With Disaster to slide hopelessly out of his grasp. The wittiness of the writing cannot compensate for the shortcomings of the characterization. You find yourself thinking, "Gee, that was a funny line. Why didn't it make me laugh?"
Not establishing audience concern for a movie's main characters is a rookie mistake. Curiously, it's a misstep that Russell didn't make in his first film. Maybe he needs a good spanking.
Flirting With Disaster.
Written and directed by David O. Russell; with Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, and Josh Brolin.