FLIRTING WITH DISASTER (1996) ** 1/2
The first feature by David O. Russell, the low budget "Spanking the Monkey," was daringly original. It made the writer-director more than just promising, which is something that new filmmakers have to live up to, especially as there is generally a kind of curse attached to second features.
In Russell's case, the funny "Flirting With Disaster" is no comedown, even though the film is neither daring nor a minor landmark. It is clever without brilliance or depth, it is inventive without originality.
"FLT" is a road movie of sorts. Not quite an odyssey as it has only three way-stations. Following a zippy montage, we meet Mel Coplin (Stiller), about 30, in an adoption agency. Entomologist Mel, the beloved and loving adopted son of a New York Jewish couple (Moore and Segal), is married to sweet Nancy (Arquette). They have a first baby who remains unnamed for an outlandish time, partly because Mel is in the throes of a pre-midlife crisis.
Has this been brewing for some time or is it sudden? The film, not exactly a profound study of characters, tells us nothing. We are simply shown a confused Mel who feels that his identity will never be complete so long as he does not learn who and what his natural parents are.
Working in an adoption agency, Tina Kalb (Leoni), a beautiful long-legged ex-dancer now on the brink of divorce and, perhaps, a Ph.D. in psychology, delivers the goods. "Your mother lives in San Diego. Let's go." Tina wants to include herself and her camcorder as part of her academic research.
The quartet drives west, is reunited with a caricatural, multi-wedded Southern belle. She looks nothing like Mel, is a devout Reaganite ("he was a great friend") and the mother of gorgeously vacuous beach bimbo twins. Through a mixup in Tina's files, the lady turns out to be the wrong person. I give away nothing as the audience had guessed this all along.
The episode is amusing, has good farce, almost hilarious dialogue and changes of behavior. Contrite Tina, whom Mel is attracted to, is now sure she has located the right parents. From the San Diegan sun, the foursome treks to snow and slush, Gerald Ford-loving Michigan. The new candidate is an improbable father, a low-life type. Diagnosing Mel's "Jew nose," he forwards him to New Mexico, but not before a fracas that involves a couple (in both senses) of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms officers.
Paul is gay with some neuroses. Tony is bisexual. As movie luck would have it he had gone to school with Nancy, now desires her and also feels the need to have a baby. The quartet grows to a sextet as the two men, none too credibly, go with the Coplins -- as vacationers, not professional sleuths.
Episode Three leads to Antelope Springs, N.M. and the real McCoys, the Schlictings (Tomlin and Alda) and their sullen, weirdo son. This, the journey's decisive leg, turns out to be an acid trip for some.
The Schlictings are unreconstructed old acidheads, anachronistic hippies who in the Sixties were jailed for making LSD. They are are now "artists" who live from their awful work, "with supplements from other things." In a film that keeps announcing its moves, you can guess that what they fabricate in their basement is not Christmas seals. (Major laughter is produced when Tina lights up and Alan Alda stops her with "This is a non-smoking house.")
There is some lust in the film (Mel and Tina, Tony and Nancy) but this pales before the catalogue of references to body parts. It begins as Patricia Arquette primps most intimately for her husband; then Mary Tyler Moore briefly shows her bra-clad breasts (actually nothing risque); it continues with legs, calves, noses, male organs, more breasts...
It's rather systematic, as is the movie's development. The plumbing of characters is sacrificed to broad gags. You laugh allright but the movie's creatures are not really attaching, likable or interesting. Eventually they get a bit tiresome, along with the plot's cliched mixups of humans, cars, keys and other objects.
Writer-director Russsell is no Preston Sturges or Woody Allen, although, vaguely like Woody, he tries to exploit Jewishness vs. Goyishness. The Coplins (especially Mary Tyler Moore), Tina, the two lawmen are more neurotic than dysfunctional, while the Schlictings (except the son) are in harmony with their kookiness. All actors deliver OK performances in their limited-scale roles.
Do not look for ambitious thoughts, not even the old notion that the blue bird of happiness is found at home or next door. This is first and last a machinery for screwball farce. It's a pleasant enough work, with the added bonus of deserving inclusion in the BBNMM Society's roster (that's Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movie).
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com