A Welcome `Disaster'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 29, 1996; Page N46

"FLIRTING WITH Disaster," like that Energizer Bunny, keeps on going. But in this case, the perpetual motion is a deliciously hysterical rush. This offbeat, documentary-like comedy becomes geometrically funnier as it goes along. Filmmaker David O. Russell, who made the darkly unconventional comedy "Spanking the Monkey," has a keep-the-fire-burning approach to storytelling. One amusing episode becomes kindling wood to another; and the conflagration gets ever higher.

Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) has been raised with love by his neurotic foster parents (George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore) but has always wanted to meet his biological forebears. Now married to Nancy (Patricia Arquette) and the father of a baby son, his desire to find his roots becomes even stronger. There's an equally pressing problem: Parenthood is adversely affecting his sexual attraction to Nancy.

When Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), a leggy, zoned-out counselor-in-training from Mel's adoption agency, approaches him with news of his original parents, Mel decides a reunion is the answer to everything. Informed his mother is living in San Diego, he journeys West with his wife, son and Tina for an emotional homecoming. But, as will be the case throughout the movie, Mel's sentimental intentions are in constant collision with reality.

For starters, his "mother," Valerie (Celia Weston), a strained, weird housewife with a southern accent, isn't everything he imagined. In fact, she's not his mother at all. Unfortunately, Mel discovers this after he has emotionally bonded with her, met her spaced-out, volleyball-playing twin daughters (his supposed half sisters) and accidentally shattered her collection of esoteric glass trinkets.

When a highly embarrassed Tina informs everyone she was misinformed, Valerie demands that Mel reimburse her for the broken collection while the sunny-tempered daughters offer a Cal-speak round of condolences.

"Have a nice life," says one.

"Yeah," says her sister. "Good luck with this whole family thing. Hope it works out for you."

Of course, things don't work out at all. When Mel and company head for Michigan (where, Tina claims, his real father can be found), they are on a genetic wild goose chase. While Mel encounters more characters who turn out not to be related to him, other problems proliferate mercilessly: Tina's physical charms become harder for him to resist, upsetting his wife (who is obsessed with getting her husband back into the mood between breastfeedings). Mel's adoptive parents make him feel guilty for missing his father's birthday party.

On this road trip to hell, Mel runs into an ever-increasing variety of nut cases, sickos and eccentrics, including trucker Fritz (David Patrick Kelly), two FBI agents (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin) with strange personal histories of their own and a couple of New Mexico ex-hippies known as the Schlictings (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin), who do pottery, sculpture and more than a little LSD.

Writer-director Russell ekes out varied, rewarding performances from everyone. A crowd of veteran actors put newfound sheen on their careers. Segal and Moore deserve some sort of "Seinfeld" award as a perfect pair of Manhattan neurotics. And in the screwball climax in New Mexico that includes involuntary acid trips, a naked G-man romping through the desert and some of the funniest retorts ever penned, Alda and Tomlin own the movie.

When, for instance, Tomlin has to console her psychotic hippie son, Lonnie (Glenn Fitzgerald -- whose oddball performance makes you wonder if he's related to the Phoenix family), her bedside manner isn't exactly that tender.

"We love you very much," she tells Lonnie, matter-of-factly. "Even if you were Jeffrey Dahmer, we would love you."

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (R) -- Contains sexual situations, nudity and profanity. Cineplex Odeon Avalon, Dupont Circle 5 and Shirlington 7.

© 1996 The Washington Post Company