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Flirting With Disaster (1996)

February 15th, 2008 · 10 Comments

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“I can’t help feeling that if I’d been raised by at least one of my real parents, I wouldn’t be such a nervous person,” admits Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) as he pictures random people on the street being his biological parents. A data analyst named Tina Kalb (Téa Leoni) notifies Mel that his birth mother lives in San Diego. Mel rushes home, where his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) has made a date for them to have sex. Their bedroom activity is interrupted when Mel introduces Tina and makes his big announcement.

An ex-dancer finishing her doctorate, Tina accompanies Mel, Nancy and their nameless newborn son to San Diego to document the reunion. This upsets Mel’s high-strung adoptive mother (Mary Tyler Moore) who takes it as a signal she wasn’t good enough. His adoptive father (George Segal) is convinced some disaster will befall them. Mel meets his Southern twanged mother (Celia Weston) and almost as soon as he learns he’s Scots Finnish, Tina notifies him that she made a mistake and that this woman isn’t really his mother.

In Michigan, Tina tracks down Mel’s birth father, a psycho truck driver (David Patrick Kelly) who offers to give his son a lesson in big rig driving. He turns out only to be the person who delivered Mel to the adoption agency. Two federal agents (Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins) who are involved romantically befriend the trio after Mel runs over a post office. They travel with them to New Mexico, where Mel’s birth parents the Schlichtings (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda) have been located. They have a few surprises of their own.


Production history
After graduating from Amherst College in 1981, David O. Russell worked as a political organizer and wrote for magazines before deciding to pursue a career in film. He directed two shorts – Bingo Inferno, which was screened at Sundance in 1987, and Hairway To The Stars – but by the ‘90s was working in an office by day and bartending by night. Russell used a $40,000 grant from the NEA and connections his roommate’s mother had to make a feature – Spanking the Monkey – a dark comedy about incest.

While his debut drew critical notice, it had hardly been a crowd pleaser. For a follow-up, Russell decided to quickly change gears. In the six months after Spanking the Monkey screened at Sundance in January 1994, he wrote Flirting With Disaster, a screwball comedy about a young father who goes in search of his biological parents. Harvey Weinstein, chairman of Miramax Films, wanted Russell’s next picture and inked him to a two-picture deal.

Russell was inspired by the “comedy of errors” his adoptive sister had gone through searching for her birth parents. “One minute she thought she found them and felt like she had found the Holy Grail, and the next minute she was freaking out. And marriage is kind of like that, too. You think it’s a holy grail, and it can be a lot of fun at times, but it’s also a complicated, messy thing, and sometimes you start to think that maybe another woman could be the answer to your problems. I chose to make fun of all that in this movie.”


The studio vetoed Russell’s choice of Janeane Garofalo to play Nancy, but the strength of his script and pedigree of his debut attracted a first-rate cast. Trouble came when Miramax put the film before a test audience in New Jersey. The numbers were decent, but Weinstein felt they would improve if Russell cut some brief shots under the closing credits, including one that showed Brolin and Jenkins in bed. Russell acquiesced, but when released in April 1996, the film went unseen, grossing $14 million in the U.S.

Even though I laughed out loud three times during the opening credits, Flirting With Disaster has little in common with the big budget comedies written for Ben Stiller once he became “Ben Stiller.” Instead of basing its humor around gags, the film’s pleasures come from the quirks of its characters as they zip in and out of the story. While a few of the scenes struggle in a way that make me sure Russell spent six months working on the script, that economy of time also gives the film a bright and diabolical energy that I enjoyed.

This is an R-rated comedy made by adults for adults. The fact that a cast this amazing was put together is a testament to the overall strength of the script. Instead of trying to make the characters “sympathetic,” Russell has the conviction to make them real. The couple played by Ben Stiller & Patricia Arquette actually feels like a couple, insecurities and all, while the insanity unleashed once Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda are introduced will ring familiar with fans of the great screwball comedies of the 1940s.


Lisa Skryniarz at Crazy For Cinema writes, “Flirting With Disaster is a family-driven comedy that pushes the edge of the envelope of good taste without ever going over, unlike some of Stiller’s more recent endeavors. David O’Russell roots his strange tale in the real world and though these situations are unlikely to all happen to one person, they are ten times more believable than a film like There’s Something About Mary.”

“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,” writes Patrick Bromley at DVD Verdict.

Dan Jardine at Apollo Movie Guide writes, “The movie has just the right blend of the peculiar and the real. The plot has more twists than a slinky. All the characters are oddly off centre, but only Agent Tony approaches absurdity. Flirting With Disaster satirizes our culture’s ego-driven navel-gazing, but it retains a kindness and gentleness toward its characters that allows us to care about them while we’re laughing at them.”

View Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert give two thumbs up to Flirting With Disaster on Siskel & Ebert.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Dreams and visions · Father/son relationship · Mother/son relationship · Road trip

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 al // Feb 18, 2008 at 11:49 am

    Great review, Joe. Here’s yet another movie you’ve encouraged me to check out. Thanks for that.

  • 2 Burbanked // Feb 18, 2008 at 11:57 am

    I’ve thought about this movie a number of times since seeing it – once – way back whenever. Every so often I’ll try to remember, without much success, whether I liked it or not. Sounds like maybe it’s worth another spin, and knowing – now – that Russell directed puts it into a different category as well.

  • 3 Christine // Feb 18, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Joe, I had lost my appetite for Ben Stiller, but your review actually convinced me to see this film!

  • 4 Heather // Feb 18, 2008 at 12:30 pm

    I have too much work and not enough free time, so I am really grateful for the detailed and socially-contextualized reviews here at “This Distracted Globe.” I love to use “This Distracted Globe” to help me choose what to see in my limited free time. Without it, I would be lost and maybe run the risk of either viewing really bad stuff (and getting turned off from watching anything ever again) or not appreciating some things that are set in their social and film context so well here.
    So, thanks a lot for the help with making the most of my distracted life on this distracted globe.
    All the best from Germany, Heather

  • 5 Joseph R. Valdez // Feb 18, 2008 at 2:21 pm

    For selfish and informative personal reasons as well as supporting your continued sucess, this annnouncment wishes you my continued full-time support as a full-time movie editor. With the depth of knowledge and understanding you possess in the marriage of both areas, the fit would seem as natural as “The Natural’s” glove.
    On behalf of the Electrical Engineering staff at
    Jacobs Engineering, even through the eyes of an untrained novice, from the quality and volume of your work it must surely be obvious
    you are the man for that assigment. Good luck.

  • 6 Moviezzz // Feb 18, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    I liked this one theatrically, owned it on laserdisc, but have yet to watch it a second time.

    Great review.

  • 7 Chuck // Feb 19, 2008 at 11:18 am

    Flirting with Disaster is my favorite film of David O. Russell’s in that it seems the least interested in being good for you. Three Kings needs a messier third act, and I Heart Huckabess? I don’t know, something about it didn’t quite work for me, I want, really want to like it, and I like large passages of it, but it ultimately doesn’t come together for me. I think he and Alexander Payne are the Fathers of Comedy to emerge in the 1990s, and I hope he gets to work again soon though.

    Nearly forgot Spanking the Monkey, which I really enjoyed.

  • 8 Jennica // Feb 19, 2008 at 11:21 pm

    Oh, this is one of my favourites. It hadn’t occurred to me it had flown under the radar for so many people! And I think you nailed what’s so good about it: the comedy comes from characters, their quirks, their agendas… yet the absurdity of these characters feels grounded in the real, rather than cartoonish. I wish more comedies these days found this tonal ground.

  • 9 Jeremy // Feb 20, 2008 at 10:33 am

    This is actually one of my all time favorite comedies. The first time I saw it, I literally went around for weeks after begging people to watch it. I wish all comedies were this smart and human.
    Key to the success of the film for me is the performance of Patricia Arquette. I think she does such a wonderful and subtle job here playing a woman who is struggling at being a new mother and having to deal with an incredibly neurotic husband. Her line reading in the back of the car about car jacking is one of the funniest things I have ever seen and I often quote it to myself when I am feeling down…
    I like all of Russell’s films…this one might be my favorite.

  • 10 Joe Valdez // Feb 20, 2008 at 12:28 pm

    Al: The fact that you’re out there reading makes me much more conscientious about which films I endorse. I would hate for a man finishing law school to waste two hours of his life just because I told him Pirates of the Caribbean was pretty good. I can’t have that on my conscience.

    Alan: I too saw Flirting With Disaster in 1996 and looking back, I think it captures the Sundance/Miramax spirit of independence that was ’90s filmmaking after Pulp Fiction was released, a spirit which has been co-opted this century so far. I hope you enjoy this as much the second time around.

    Christine: Thanks for commenting! Warning: you might not want to watch this with your mom. There is some adult oriented content involving Patricia Arquette pleasuring her husband while he has their baby in one hand and a puppet in the other and that is within the first five minutes of the feature presentation.

    Heather: Like Al, you encourage me to think not only conscientiously about what I recommend because I know how few movies you watch, but also globally. I think this film shows that not all American films are commercial extravaganzas, but many are off-beat and actually have something to say about relationships, sex and identity.

    Dad: The fact that engineers are reading this site makes me feel I need to go take an HTML class or learn to code or something. Thanks for you and your co-workers continued support for my creative endeavors!

    Moviezzz: I have a laserdisc copy of Dead Man Walking that I purchased in 1998 – back when laserdiscs were a practical way of watching movies – and I still haven’t taken it out of the shrink wrap. You have given me an idea for a future column. “Movies You Need To Get Around To Unwrapping.” Thanks – as always – for your comments.

    Chuck: I don’t know what I Heart Huckabee’s was either, except for producers who gave Russell too much rope after he made a box office hit. But Flirting With Disaster was a terrific bent on the screwball comedy, while Three Kings subverted the action/war movie supremely well.

    Jennica: If I can be cynical for a moment, if you work for a major studio, how do you show character-based humor in a 24-second trailer? The suits need the shot of someone tripping over something to sell audiences that a movie is going to be funny. But Russell is a unique voice and I think we’re all better off that he wasn’t interested in any of that shit. Thanks for sharing your screenwriting acumen once again!

    Jeremy: Patricia Arquette has been one of my favorite actresses of the last decade. One of the biggest mistakes Oliver Stone ever made was casting Meg Ryan as Pamela Morrison in The Doors because she was a big star, in spite of an audition Arquette gave that blew everyone away. Now I can’t watch that movie without wanting to digitally scrub Ryan out from the picture. Arquette has thrown herself into so many roles with complete and utter fearlessness. I hope to have something to write about True Romance in the coming weeks. Thanks – as always – for commenting!

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