Wicked wit, an expert cast and crack comic timing all contribute to making “Flirting With Disaster” the best romantic comedy in years. But it’s the film’s wider scope writer-director David O. Russell’s recognition that romance and extended family ties are inextricably, derangingly linked that really makes this “Disaster” a singular success.
In his second feature outing, after the impressive, disturbing “Spanking the Monkey,” Russell is still fundamentally concerned with the inevitable weirdness of close relationships. But “Disaster” has a lighter tone and a classical farce structure. It’s a great leap forward in terms of craftsmanship that, remarkably, sacrifices none of Russell’s sharp insights into human foolishness.
Toss in some cogent satire of media-age self-involvement (and of the previous generation’s liberated lunacy) and you’ve finally got the contemporary ‘90s comedy that everyone’s been hoping for. And as it is with any true character comedy, Russell’s thorough acquaintance with timeless human foibles anchors the movie to eternal issues of the heart.
Starting with a premise straight off an “Oprah” show - “Adopted children’s search for their roots” - Russell cross-stitches a multifaceted fable of familial uncertainty. Ben Stiller’s Mel Coplin is obsessed with finding his birth parents, and a quick introduction to the nervous, overbearing New York couple that raised him (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) seems to explain why.
But the elder Coplins are just a small part of Mel’s true motivation. As we (and he) gradually discover, this forebear search is really his way of coping with his own mortal fear of domesticity. A first-time father, Mel feels boxed-in by his still unnamed, 4-month-old son and attentioncraving wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette).
So, better to obsess about his real parents than accept mature responsibilities. Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni of TV’s “The Naked Truth”), a counselor at the agency that arranged the infant Mel’s adoption, thinks she’s found his birth mother. Eager to record the reunion for posterity (and distract herself from a failing marriage), Tina accompanies the Coplins to the big meeting in San Diego. As it turns out, Tina’s data is faulty, and during the ensuing, cross-country search for the true biological folks, she, Mel and Nancy fall into a fidgety romantic triangle.
Instead of the usual stupidity that governs these kinds of movie constructions, all three corners of this one make perfect emotional sense. Mel’s controlled but leaking hysteria, Tina’s klutzy vulnerability and Nancy’s postpartum insecurity all add up to behavior that’s as richly amusing as it is honest.
Even better, this central triangle generates such strong neurotic gravity, it sucks unsuspecting bystanders into its dysfunctional orbit. Whether Mel’s adoptive parents, his more attractive - initially - natural ones (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin) or a gay couple (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin, whose matter-of-fact portrayal is no impediment to their hilarity), everyone in this movie discovers an endless capacity for driving the people they love crazy.
Just like real life, but funnier. Amid all of this humorous turmoil, Russell finds room for some neat visual gags and sharp swipes at a grabbag of modern annoyances, from bed-and-breakfast inns to the aggressive incompetence of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
But while he pulls no satirical punches, Russell is clearly amused by, more than anything else, the way love survives the most ridiculous carryings-on.
“Flirting With Disaster” is ultimately a valentine to the inescapable power of even the worst-expressed affections. After all, upsetting as it can sometimes be, a little flirting, even with disaster, helps keep life interesting.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “FLIRTING WITH DISASTER Locations: East Sprague and North Divisionand cinemas. Credits: Directed by David O. Russell; starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin Running time: 1:32 Rating: R