Hal Hinson - Style section,
'Flirting With Disaster'
Mel Coplin has been raised with love by his neurotic foster parents but has always wanted to meet his biological forebears. Now married to Nancy 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, 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. -- Desson Howe
A Welcome 'Disaster'
"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.
'Flirting': A Farce to Reckon With
By Hal Hinson
"Flirting With Disaster," writer-director David O. Russell's exhilarating follow-up to "Spanking the Monkey," is even wilder, giddier and more unpredictable than that irreverent debut. The movie begins promisingly with a self-consciously postpartum Nancy (Patricia Arquette) preparing herself for a "date" with her husband, Mel (Ben Stiller), by decorating their bed with yellow roses. Since their baby was born, it seems Mel has been too distracted for sex. Actually, he's been too distracted for anything- even to give their 4-week-old boy a name.
Mel's problem is that he was adopted. His adoptive parents-a pair of pathologically meddlesome Upper West Siders played by George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore-put the "loco" in in loco parentis. But, for some reason, the birth of his own child has put Mel in a panic. Until he discovers his own natural parents, he says, he can't even consider giving his kid a permanent handle.
Though Russell revealed a fresh, provocative sensibility in "Spanking the Monkey," there was nothing to indicate that he might have the talent for social farce that he shows here. The movie takes off fast and crazy, and just keeps gathering speed. A worldview is starting to emerge from Russell's films. The America that serves as a backdrop here is a circus of conflicting lifestyles and philosophies-liberal, conservative, gay, straight, hip, square-but Russell doesn't side with any one point of view. Instead, he presents them as equally bonkers, poking fun at the whole lot.
At times, the satire in "Flirting" recalls the hip '70s comedies of Paul Mazursky, except that Russell's style here is more free-form, less literary. The camera technique he utilizes is ragged and verges on verite; it looks as if it were shot quickly, and mostly by hand. But what the director loses in polish, he gains in speed and spontaneity. This approach also allows Russell to cover a lot of ground.
If Russell's direction is rough and jazzy, his writing is observant, detailed and just the slightest bit bent. With the help of Tina (a scatterbrained Tea Leoni), the psychological social worker assigned to oversee reunions of this sort, Mel ascertains that his "real" mom is a boozy, much-divorced suburban wife living somewhere near San Diego. After introductions are made, the woman fondly points out that she and her lost boy have similar foreheads, filling the prodigal dope with family feeling: "I've never shared a brow before," he says. Immediately, though, the fit seems wrong. After a discussion about birthdays, Tina announces that a slight mistake has been made, and that Mel's real "real" father lives somewhere in Michigan.
During the course of their travels, this farcical family road show-which now includes Mel, Nancy, their baby, Tina, and a pair of gay federal agents-manages to cause a fair amount of damage, not only to public property but to its various relationships as well. Ultimately, the search leads to New Mexico, where Mel and his group rendezvous with his birth parents and his adoptive parents, who have flown out from New York to rescue him. To reveal exactly how this insanity plays out-and who Mel's parents turn out to be-would spoil a delicious surprise (I won't even reveal the names of the actors).
In "Spanking the Monkey," Russell employed mostly unknown actors, and another revelation here is how well he works with this cast of bigger-name stars. The alluringly insecure Nancy knows that Mel's interest is waning, but Arquette gives the character an unflappable grace-she takes it all in stride, even the disruptive presence of Tina, a former dancer whose own marriage is falling apart.
As Mel, Stiller is most appealing when he's at a loss, which is most of the time. But the character is a hopeless whiner and monotonously self-absorbed. Fortunately, as the movie progresses it becomes more of an ensemble piece, with exuberant, unrestrained performances from everyone, including Celia Weston (as Wrong Mother No. 1), David Patrick Kelly (as Wrong Father No. 1), Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin (as the feds) and Glenn Fitzgerald (as Mel's high-strung brother, Lonnie). Best of all, though, are the actors who play Mel's rediscovered kin. When they open the front door of their home to greet their lost son, Mel may not feel as if he's opened the door to Heaven, but you will.