Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Flirting with Disaster Movie Review

One of the most criminally undervalued comedies of the 90s was written and directed by a man was an Oscar nominee this year for the critically acclaimed The Fighter. But back in 1996 he made a modest comedy, his follow-up to the indie hit Spanking the Monkey. Sporting a great cast and some fantastic comedy writing (combining situational comedy with great one-liners), Flirting with Disaster deserves a lot more notice than it has gotten over the years.


It stars Ben Stiller before he was known for outrageous comedies and a no-holds-barred approach to comedic acting. Most people have seen his turns in Zoolander, Starsky & Hutch, and There’s Something About Mary, where he attacks his roles with more than 100 percent, completely selling the outlandish nature of the characters and movies. But Flirting with Disaster came before all that. It’s a comedy that emanates naturally from humanity and real situations.

Stiller plays Mel Coplin, a new father to a 5-month old who can’t settle on a name for his son without delving into his familial roots. Mel was adopted, you see, by Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal. The writing of Mel’s parents, Pearl and Ed, skims the line between hilarious ethnic depictions and offensive stereotypes. Incredible that a gentile like Russell was able to pull off such fine characterization and keep it just this side of safe! Both are neurotic worriers, Pearl more so. She’s also at times emasculating and manipulative – the classic stereotype of an older Jewish woman.

With the help of Tina (Tea Leoni), a psychology doctoral candidate working at the adoption agency where Mel was adopted, he locates his birth mother in San Diego. Mel’s wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) is up for going with him on his journey of self-discovery, but his parents are skeptical, threatened and incredulous. Tina travels with them to make it an awkward threesome of a road movie. A series of errors sends them to Wisconsin and then New Mexico, picking up new travel companions Paul and Tony (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin), two ATF agents who cross paths with them.

To reveal how this all pans out is to ruin one of the best elements the movie has going for it – the element of surprise. Thinking back on it you simply can’t believe the outrageousness of the actions of coincidences, but while it plays it feels natural. I have to give credit mostly to the performers here, who make their characters feel lived-in. Paul is an uptight officer of the law who goes by the book while Tony, his partner, is more open to bending the rules, as well as his ideas of monogamy. Their addition to the road crew adds to the building tension between Mel and Nancy, as does Tina’s presence, who is having off-screen marital problems of her own.

In New Mexico, two more great comedy performers are added to the mix. Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda play Mary and Richard Schlichting (the screenplay has a grand old time with that name), two not-quite reformed hippies living in the desert with their creepy 19-year old son, Lonnie (Glenn Fitzgerald). Some of the film’s greatest moments come in this final act at the Schlichting house, even before the surprise arrival of Mel’s adoptive parents! Two of the funniest lines Russell has penned come from the mouth of Richard Jenkins as he suffers from a powerful acid trip foisted upon him by Lonnie’s jealousy. Again, I hesitate to reveal too much because to see it cold, as I remember doing as a freshman in college, is to laugh hysterically.

But the film has great heart too. All the high jinks and hysteria would be for naught were it not for the relationships Russell carefully builds in his writing. Mel and Nancy are a young couple trying to cope with being new parents and not having enough time for each other. Mel is neurotically trying to discover his roots, which turns out to be very frustrating for Nancy. Woven throughout the comedy is some light drama as well. And what’s wonderful is that we actually care about these characters. The same is true for Paul and Tony. Though they are secondary to the story, their treatment doesn’t feel like it. They are fully fleshed out human beings. In fact, as the end credits roll, Russell treats us to brief snippets showing how the various characters we’ve encountered end up after the narrative of the film has finished. He gives equal weight to everyone, a real sign that he wants us to be as interested in their futures as he is.

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