Miramax // 1996 // 93 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // July 26th, 2004
Have you flirted yet?
Before making his 1999 Gulf War-movie masterpiece, Three Kings, indie director David O. Russell created one of the funniest and most original comedies of the 1990s, Flirting With Disaster. Miramax now updates its previous movie-only release of the film with a surprisingly sparse "Collector's Series" edition.
Entomologist Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller, Zero Effect, Mystery Men) is adopted, and wants to find his real parents.
Okay, there's more to it than that.
See, Mel's overly neurotic (the fact that he's played by Ben Stiller should be a good indication), and blames all of his issues on his lack of a "real identity." Plus, the son he's just had with his wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette, True Romance, Lost Highway), is already four months old and doesn't have a name yet -- another side effect of Mel's identity issues. They (Mel) decide(s) that locating his biological parents will magically cure Mel of his neuroses and restore order to the Coplins' lives.
Okay, there's more to it than that.
See, running the show is a would-be psychologist from the adoption agency, Tina (Téa Leoni, Bad Boys, The Family Man), who is struggling with an infinite number of neuroses of her own. Not only is Tina a chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, sexually frustrated mental and emotional wreck, but she's fairly incompetent at her job as well -- the task of locating Mel's birth parents becomes nearly impossible in her less-than-capable hands. So awry do her plans go that Mel, Nancy, Tina, and the yet-to-be-named baby all find themselves in the custody of two ATF agents (Josh Brolin, The Goonies, and Richard Jenkins, Eye of God).
Okay, there's more to it than that.
See, I'd rather not give anything else away -- the continual surprises are half of the movie's charm. Just be aware that other plot elements include homosexual marriages, Indian wrestling, LSD overdoses, truck driving, armpit licking, tiny glass statues, carjacking, and B&Bs. You've been warned.
Flirting With Disaster is that rare find -- a comedy that builds entirely out of character and dialogue, without falling back on the inserted situational humor or laborious gags that plague ninety percent of American comedies released in the last decade. It has a great deal more in common with reality as we know it than most comedic films; for example, the movie clearly finds sex intriguing and even funny, but it's merely a part of its characters' lives -- not the foundation, as it is in so many other films. The repetitive phrasing of "there's more to it than that" in the above summary was quite intentional -- it's indicative of the film's consistent ability to take labyrinth-like turns and reveal surprising new layers.
That last statement can probably said for a number of films, especially those of the indie-film movement of the mid-'90s. What distinguishes David O. Russell from the rest of his Sundance brethren, though, is that the absurdity of this film feels totally organic -- it's never forcibly convoluted. Nor are Russell's characters quirky for the sake of quirkiness; as outrageously as they sometimes behave, they never cease to be utterly believable -- these are people you and I know.
In many ways, I'd compare Flirting With Disaster with the best works of Woody Allen, only Russell is willing to go farther and get more absurd than Woody (at least, in his more commercial works; I'm the first to admit there may be nothing more absurd than a giant boob terrorizing a town). Flirting's characters are similarly trapped by their neuroses and obsessions, but oftentimes Woody's plots became inhibited by those same things. Allen's films, like the cinematic universe they present, wind up boxed in by their characters' issues; Russell's film, on the other hand, is liberated by them. The film is not limited to being solely about the idiosyncrasies of its characters; rather, it provides a solid plot and allows those idiosyncrasies to dictate the way the characters will behave in a given situation. Woody would be proud.
Watching the film now, one becomes nostalgic for the days when Ben Stiller was funny -- or at least bothered to act (films like Zero Effect, Permanent Midnight, and Your Friends and Neighbors made up his heyday). These days, it hardly seems like a comedy is released (he's shown up in no less than five films so far this year) that doesn't showcase him either mugging as his "intense character" or being desperately embarrassed in some way. Flirting With Disaster doesn't require much more of Stiller than to be put-upon, but understands two essential factors when it comes to using him as an actor: 1) We have to like him, but only kind of; 2) if you're going to have him put-upon, make sure it's within the context of funny situations (not a lost cat) and surround him with funny supporting characters (not Jennifer Aniston).
Flirting With Disaster's supporting cast is pretty brilliant, too. In addition to Stiller, there's Patricia Arquette -- never more soft-spokenly direct or frumpy/sexy; Téa Leoni, a revelation in this kind of comedic role; the great, great Richard Jenkins in what might be his best role to date; and the formidable foursome of Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Lily Tomlin, and Alan Alda -- all playing against type as different variations of Mel's parents. I would argue that just about every actor in the film is funnier here than I've seen him or her in anything that came before it.
The new "Collector's Series" of the film that Miramax has released (following its original supplement-free release) is frustrating, but that may be due to the studio's choice of terminology. If, by "Collector's Series," the folks at the House of Weinstein are implying that any serious collector of film should own Flirting With Disaster, I'm on board. Absolutely. However, in the world of DVD, that's hardly ever what those words are suggesting -- especially when the disc's release coincides with two truly special edition Miramax releases, Cop Land and Trainspotting. By those standards, the "Collector's Series" release of Flirting With Disaster is a big disappointment. The 1.85:1 video transfer is acceptable, as is the 5.1 audio track -- the dialogue that drives the film is presented clearly and cleanly. The disappointment lies in the almost pitiful handful of extras included: a few deleted scenes that would have thrown off the film's delicate pacing, an original promotional featurette (snore), and two gag reels (one for the theatrical release, one for the deleted scenes) that are far less funny than anything included in the film. Why no contemporary comments from Stiller or the rest of the cast? And where is David O. Russell? Save for a brief cameo in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, the guy's been absent for nearly five years now. The inclusion of a director's commentary track -- even an interview -- would have been a more-than-welcome addition, and might have helped ease the double-dip blow.
Flirting With Disaster may not please audiences that believe that comedy begins and ends with the Three Stooges (no disrespect to them, of course). Like the films of Woody Allen, it's more cerebral than that -- Russell is more interested in addressing issues of identity, sexuality, and relationships than in having his characters fall down or have to go to the bathroom unexpectedly. His film is a true original -- one of the finest comedies to come out of the 1990s.
The Court suggests that Miramax more closely consider its unwarranted use of the phrase "Collector's Series," but finds David O. Russell and Flirting With Disaster not guilty. Please make another movie already.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Theatrical Cut Blooper Reel
* Deleted Scenes Blooper Reel
* Promotional Featurette