Flirting with Disaster (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Different parts of the female anatomy fascinate various men. Some are drawn to legs, others to breasts, and others to hips. But Tony, one of the many characters to join the bizarre cross-country trek chronicled in Flirting with Disaster, is an arm-pit man, and that says something about writer/director David O. Russell's flamboyant, irreverent sense of humor. This is one director who has not been afflicted with the infamous "sophomore jinx." In fact, although Flirting with Disaster is not as corrosive as Russell's debut feature, Spanking the Monkey, it's just as wild, just as strange, and even funnier.

Ben Stiller, who has been looking for a worthy comic outlet, has finally found a suitable role. His neurotic Mel Copland is going through a mid-life crisis long before mid-life. A control freak no longer in control, Mel, who was adopted as a baby, is on a quest for his biological parents. In fact, he's so hung up on the issue of his "true identity" that he hasn't been able to name his 4-month old son.

Mel's long-suffering wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), is trying to be supportive, but, as Mel's obsession deepens, it becomes more difficult. Finally, one day, the adoption agency locates Mel's mother: a middle-aged woman living in San Diego. With Tina Kalb (Tia Leoni), a leggy counselor-in-training from the agency, in tow, Mel and Nancy head west. And that's where the disasters, which start with a mistaken identity and end with a flight across the border into Mexico, begin. Before it's all over, Mel will have become acquainted with four parents, two gay federal officers, and a brother who tries to send him on a bad acid trip. All the while, he'll be trying to figure out who he is, whether he wants Tina or Nancy, and why he bothered searching for his roots in the first place.

David O. Russell takes the traditional road picture and does some really strange things with it. With a view of middle America that David Lynch would applaud, Russell peels back the layers of normalcy to reveal the twisted and absurd things that go on underneath. However, where Lynch makes his case through violence and mysticism, Russell uses outrageous humor and parody. The results are no less telling, however.

Flirting with Disaster is populated with a band of deliciously offbeat characters. In addition to the main trio, we meet Mel's adopted parents, played by a low-key George Segal and a high-strung Mary Tyler Moore, Mel's real parents (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin), and the two Feds (Josh Brolin as Tony and Richard Jenkins as Paul) who join the entourage midway through their trek from New York to California to Michigan to New Mexico.

Each new port of call offers a surprise. If it's not a false lead, it likely involves some time in handcuffs. Russell delights in stringing us along with Mel as his search becomes increasingly more surreal. Like the main character in Spanking the Monkey, Mel is trapped by circumstances beyond his control. But if there's one lesson he learns, it's that sometimes it's better to appreciate what you have instead of yearning for what you don't. To be sure, Mel grows from his experience, but if he had it to do over again, he'd probably stay home.

Russell has paced his film perfectly, gradually building from the relatively normal to the extremely strange, and heightening the humor with each new twist. Flirting with Disaster has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek the entire way; there's no opportunity for serious introspection. By the time the ninety-minute film has expired, you'll be glad you joined Mel and company on this hilariously eccentric journey.

Flirting with Disaster (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:32
U.S. Release Date: 1996-03-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1