Ben Stiller discovers family life isn't what he had hoped for.


Parent Trap

David O. Russell makes
Flirting With Disaster

by Coury Turczyn


I don’t often write these types of lines, so let’s do it in a big way:

"Flirting With Disaster is the laugh-out-loud comedy hit of the year!"

"My guts ached from laughing! I think I’m still hemorrhaging!"

"Flirting With Disaster reveals a singular comic vision that sparkles with cinematic genius!"

"Thumbs up! WAY up!"

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, allow me to posit my theory on comedies: 98 percent of them stink. From the mass audience stylings of the Airport! genre to the somewhat more intellectual Woody wannabes, straight-on comedies rarely succeed. For the most part, they simply repeat old jokes, old routines, old plots, old characters. Not many surprises ever come along. For every Birdcage (an old idea done really well), there are a thousand Sgt. Bilkos (an old idea done horribly badly). And whatever freshness a new personality like Jim Carrey brings to the show is quickly sucked out and replicated in a never-ending string of carbon copy reprints.

But now we’ve got writer/director David O. Russell to contend with, and I feel a sense of optimism welling inside. With but two films under his belt, he’s already well on his way to becoming a bona fide original.

Flirting With Disaster, Russell’s first "mainstream" effort, is an odd combination of household names and a completely twisted comic vision. But unlike Russell’s immediate predecessors in such comedic slicing and dicing–Albert Brooks, Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers–he doesn’t insert himself or his camera into the film as a character. Instead, he performs like a maestro, throwing together a perfectly cast ensemble, haywire comic routines and sharp observations on human relationships, then conducting them into a gloriously funny, unpredictable comedy.

To be frank, Russell is a master of profane humor that isn’t brainless. His award-winning indie debut, Spanking the Monkey, dared to tackle incest as a comedic subject. Russell managed to do so without being offensive–it’s as if he wanted to see how many hot potatoes he could throw up in the air and still keep them flying. Likewise, in Flirting With Disaster, he inserts hilarious routines about such uncomfortable subjects as post-childbirth sex fears, Midwestern white supremacists, inadvertent erections, and breast sag. But at the same time, Russell examines the issues of personal identity, fidelity, and maturity.

Flirting is the story of Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller), a neurotic control freak and new father who comes to a troubling crossroads in his life because he still doesn’t know who his biological parents are. He’s become so obsessive about it that he refuses to name his newborn child rather than commit to an inappropriate name. Similarly, he seems to be drifting from his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), who demands that he resolve his identity crisis. Mel decides to enlist the aid of an adoption agency worker, Tina (Téa Leoni), to help him find his original parents. Soon, all three are crossing the country, baby in tow, to watch the reunion.

Naturally, things don’t work out, with Mel trying to bond with the wrong parents, resist the charms of Tina, and keep Nancy happy. Thankfully, he fails at all three.

The genius of Flirting With Disaster is that it makes you laugh in the wrong places. In most comedies, you know exactly when to guffaw–the preprogrammed punch lines always come exactly where you expect them to. In Chris Columbus movies, for instance, they come when the load of bricks slams into Joe Pesci’s skull (HAW HAW!). But with Flirting, the laughs sneak up on you. When Mel finally meets his real parents, for example, the glorious moment is punctuated by an abrupt, embarrassing fight with his wife–which is exactly what you didn’t expect to happen in a movie, but what you instantly recognize as often happening in real life. Likewise, things are always slipping from Mel’s control in unexpected ways that are eminently recognizable.

The humor of Flirting feels (for the most part) very natural and unforced, unlike other comedies–even good ones–that are obviously put-ons. Despite all of the characters’ "zaniness," they all come across as very real. Russell lets his characters say what they actually think–whether you like it or not. But his casting is so superb you’ll probably like it.

As Mel’s fussy Jewish adoptive parents, Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal take what could have been clichés and put such nuance into their performances that the characters become fresh again. Likewise, Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin riff on their own granola reputations to portray Mel’s ex-hippie birth-parents, perfectly sending up their foggy sensibilities. Stiller, Arquette and Leoni are all sharp and funny, revealing the most whenever their characters are at their worst. Flirting has one of the best ensembles in years.

If this movie isn’t just a fluke, Russell will be a film maker to watch, hopefully molding his own style of comedy in the years to come. As the title implies, he seems fascinated with seeing how far he can push his characters and still be funny, literally flirting with disaster.

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