FLIRTING WITH DISASTER is a movie that constants flirts with
disaster. It plays like a low budget experimental comedy where
screenwriter and director David O. Russell throws everything he can
into the script as if this is his only chance ever to make a comedy.
You may remember him from his only other film, SPANKING THE MONKEY,
which he wrote and directed. That film is a serious, moving, and
shockingly frank look at incest, and is also a much better movie.
Some people incorrectly labelled that picture as a comedy. It wasn't.
All of the above notwithstanding, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER had
enough big laughs that I did like it. When people ask me how I manage
to take such great photographs, I tell them my secret is composition
and quantity. Russell used my later technique. If you put enough
jokes in and you are raunchy and experimental enough, some are bound to
hit the mark. A lot of the movie is in bad taste; some jokes fall like
a stone; but, the ones that work are great.
The movie is about Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) embarking on a journey
to find his real parents since he feels he can not name his four month
old son until he meets his real parents. He is accompanied on the trip
by his beautiful wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) and an even more
beautiful doctor-in-training from his adoption agency, Tina Kalb (Tea
Leoni). His adoptive parents are played by Mary Tyler Moore and George
As an example of the crudeness of the script, the movie starts
with Nancy having sex with Mel while he protests since he is holding
their baby. In an embarrassing scene, Mary Tyler Moore raises her
blouse to show a living room full of people how a strong bra is her
trick to keeping a good figure. There are other examples that are hard
to describe in a G rated review of an R rated movie.
The mother can not understand Mel's motivation so she asks, "Why
does he have to do the Roots thing? Aren't we good enough parents?"
The running joke in the movie is that they go on a series of wild goose
chases where they find people who turn out not to be Mel's real parents
afterall. The first jaunt is to take them to San Diego, but they are
warned by Mel's adoptive father that, "San Diego has a big carjacking
problem. They bump you, and when you stop, they mutilate you." His
first "real" mom, Valerie Swaney, is sweet but strange and full of
strange little homilies. She tells Mel when he breaks her prized
possession that, "All children break things. All children are
forgiven. It's a gift from God."
His first "real" dad tries to teach him how to drive a big rig.
Mel manages to smash a small post office with the truck. Two gay
agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms show up. Agent
Tony (Josh Brolin) is bisexual and an old high school boyfriend of
Nancy's. The sterner Agent Paul (Richard Jenkins) tells Mel, "You do
know it is a federal offense to destroy a United States Post Office?"
Most of the show has the five of them, Mel, Nancy, Tina, Paul, and
Tony on a road trip to find Mel's actual real parents played by Lily
Tomlin and Alan Alda along with his brother played by Glenn Fitzgerald.
At the start they rent two cars and as they try to find their cars in a
sea of identical Budget rental cars, Nancy reflects, "Does anybody
actually own a white Taurus or are they all rentals?" My favorite
scene in the movie is an indescribable sight gag that happens after Mel
and Tina almost get it on at a B & B where they are all staying.
Poor Mary Tyler Moore is pathetic in the film and looks like she
is suffering from extreme sleep depravation. George Seagal is not much
better, and they are both embarrassments. The other actors and
actresses do fine, but nothing special. The relative success of the
picture rises and falls with the undulations of the script. With lines
like Lily Tomlin's, "We love you very much. If you were Jeffrey
Dahlmer, we would still love you" or Tony's, "Do you mind if I take a
look at your armpits? I think armpits are the prettiest part of a
woman's body," the audience is in stitches. I am sad to report that a
lot of the movie had me with my mouth hanging open going "huh?" as many
attempts were duds.
FLIRTING WITH DISASTER runs a fast 1:30. It is rated R for
frequent sex, constant and very explicit sexual language, and an LSD
drug usage scene. There is no nudity or violence. I think the film
would be okay for most teenagers, but no one younger. I hate to say
it, but many parents in my audience brought kids from ages 4-10 years
old. This bizarre show is not for everyone, but I liked it and am glad
I saw it. If you like quirky sexual comedies, I recommend this film;
otherwise, don't waste your time. If you do go, stay through all of
the credits and watch the even more bizarre outtakes. I give this
funny, but highly uneven film ** 1/2.
Copyright © 1996 Steve Rhodes