Flirting with Disaster (1996)
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This is one of those movies that's just plain stupid in such a funny way you'll likely laugh out loud a lot. And you'll finish thinking it's a pretty stupid movie. The ending in particular makes you wonder what all the build up was about since it diffuses, as if the writers ran out of conflicts (or solutions) and raised their hands in surrender.
But on the way there is one funny gag after another. And a whole slew of excellent actors doing their zany best. Some of them have very brief (and contained) appearances, for sure--Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda, for example, in a hilarious section of the movie with little connection to the rest of it. In fact, the whole movie is broken into spasmodic sections, held together mostly by the three leading leads (there are lots of main characters): Ben Stiller (looking for his biological parents), Patricia Arquette (his suffering, sweet wife), and Tea Leoni (the mentally incomplete but skinny and sexy interloper).
Stiller isn't actually totally funny by himself, but acts like more of a foil for all the crazy things happening around him (this is his style on purpose, a kind of regular guy in an irregular world). Arquette is almost too normal for this abnormal world, but that's fine, she's likable, and is meant to be the loving wife who doesn't quite know how zany the events around her are. At first. Leoni has a terrific way of making nutty faces and being just slightly insane without being just stupid (the way Will Ferrell is just stupid in a different kind of humor).
There are gay jokes and jokes about LSD and a general playing of an ultra-licentious world against what seems to be a normal human desire to connect with your genetic parents, unknown to you. The mistakes along the way are what make it hilarious. Until the end, where it maybe is trying to say, "Oh well, everything is okay in a world where anything goes." Sure. Pop the big bubble, but on the way it's a gas. No pun intended.
Such is the dilemma that Mel Coplin faces. He has been adopted by a Jewish couple, Ed and Pearl, who have done well in bringing him up; Mel is a well adjusted man. After his own son is born, he decides to track down his natural parents. With the help of a young woman of the adoption agency, Tina, he and his wife, Nancy, embark in a trip to find the parents he never knew.
What seemed to be an easy task, Mel who is traveling with Nancy and the baby, plus Tina, turns out to be a complicated journey as the agency has botched the adoption papers and this quartet has to go through two sets of possible parents without any luck. When they finally get to the real parents, Mel is probably thinking if trying to meet his real family was worth all the trouble.
"Flirting with Disaster" is at times a road movie because of the many turns the story takes Mel and his own family. David O. Russell directed the film with great sense of style as he takes us along. Ben Stiller, who still had not made a splash in the movies, is impressive as the likable Mel, who gets much more than what he bargained for. Tea Leoni who is seen as Nancy, made a terrific impression on us when we saw the film originally. She proves here why she was destined for bigger and better things. Her inter action with Ben Stiller is the best thing in the film.
The rest of the cast is excellent. Mary Tyler Moore's Pearl Coplin is one of the best things she has done in her career. She makes this woman real. George Segal, a great comedy actor with great timing, appears as Ed Coplin. Patricia Arquette, who is Nancy, doesn't have much to do because she plays Nancy, the most grounded person in the film. Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin are the real parents, who are former hippies from New Mexico and in spite of being older, they still are young at heart doing the same things they did when they were younger.
"Flirting with Disaster" owes a lot to David O. Russell who also wrote the screen play and is a natural for this type of comedy.
It is about Mel Coplin (Stiller) who is puzzled who he really is a couple months after his baby is born. He becomes addicted to the fact that he indeed doesn't know who he is. Finally, he receives information of where his birth mother is. He gets on a plane with his wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), and the adoption agency associate that he is working with, Tina (Téa Leoni). Together they all fly to San Diego only to discover that there has been some terrible mistake--this woman in San Diego is not his birth mother.
Well, I won't ruin the rest of this hilarious and ongoing plot for you. I guarantee that you will laugh sometime in this movie...whether it is at the little old lady in the bed and breakfast, or when Tina maces the church workman in San Diego.
Russell's film weaves the ludicrous story of a thirty year old, first time father who can't overcome the challenges of not knowing his birth parents enough to see his wife's sexual advances or even give his kid a name. Who else could we expect to see in a role so heavily stacked with Murphy's Law possibilities than that consummate lovable loser Ben Stiller? Before we know it he, his wife, and an incompetent adoption case worker set out to meet his birth parents.
What follows is the full range of comedic possibilities from the standard road trip to off-the-wall characterizations, mistaken identity, love triangles, attempted murder, and armpit fetishism. Somehow it all flows so brilliantly that all of the craziness becomes quite plausible in what turns out to be a film that is a bit charming and damn funny.
Is it a comedy? Is it a road movie? What are all these familiar actors in the movie - didn't they read the script.
It reminds me of those early 80's 'comedies' from the Saturday Nite crew which look so dated now.
Read a book - watch some sport. (Actually did it remind anyone else of a 'life less ordinary'?)
The search takes them to San Diego where Stiller's mother turns out to be a materialistic nonentity with two radiantly healthy daughters, a big ranch house, a collection of glass zodiac figures, and no brains. It turns out to have been a mistake.
They next find themselves in Michigan where Stiller's father is an ex-Hell's Angel who now drives a truck and twits Stiller for looking Jewish. This is also a mistake.
Next stop, Antelope Wells, New Mexico, navel of the universe, where Stiller's parents are revealed to be a couple of aging hippies, Alda and Tomlin, with a lunatic son who is a selfish and jealous young man who doses the quail dinner and sends one of the visitors on an unwitting acid trip. Oh, the trio of investigators has picked up a male couple who are married. One of them is Arquette's ex-boyfriend and likes to lick her armpit.
Stiller's parents of orientation, a nice Jewish couple, show up unexpectedly, there is a mix up of vehicles, and Stiller's adoptive father, George Segal, gets caught by the police with his arms full of dope.
Despite all the travel, the movie doesn't really go anywhere in particular. Oddball is heaped upon oddball, gag upon gag. Stiller stutters a good deal, and there is a lot of overlapping nervous chatter, and people normalize all over the place -- Alda explains that after Stiller was born, he, Alda, and Tomlin spent some time in the slams but it was for nothing. Less important than a speeding ticket. It wasn't even illegal. Or it shouldn't have been. Everyone was making LSD in those days and "it's not addicting."
The question isn't really whether the movie assumes the morphology of a Woody Allen movie, but whether it gets its job done -- and it does. As far as that goes, the situational and conversational gags are funnier than many of those in Woody's recent movies. And if the movie lacks depth, well, that's okay. "Deconstructing Harry" didn't have much depth either, and neither did most of Charlie Chaplin.
If the style is a little irritating it's because we've seen it and heard it so often before. But the jokes are usually funny. The performers are up to the task and the pace never drags. The direction is well handled too. Example: Segal and Mary Tyler Moore discover that they are driving the wrong car, now immobilized on the highway, that it may not be theirs. "Look in the trunk and see if our baggage is there," says Moore. Segal rummages through the trunk hysterical with worry. No luggage. Just a lot of junk in bags and briefcases, which Segal tears open to find that his trunk is now loaded with illegal drugs. The cops come and catch him. But the director doesn't spell out the entire ordeal for us. Gradually, as Segal stares at the drug factory in his hands, and as he starts shouting at Moore, we see that blinking red lights are beginning to light up the scene and we hear a car pull to a stop off camera. (We see no car, no cops, and we hear no voices.) Segal, still holding the paraphernalia, turns towards the source of the red light wordlessly, with an idiotic smile. Dissolve. A less trusting director would have taken us through the entire encounter with the police, the two big brutes in intimidating uniforms and their baritone voices, Segal's and Moore's silly attempts at an explanation. But what we see, though truncated, is funnier because it prompts our imagination to fill in the rest of the scene.
Not badly done. Amusing, really.
Sound funny? Well guess what? It never is. Scenes that should have been uproarious end up making you feel like your face just melted, and you're lucky (or is that unlucky?) if you can stay awake until the end. Like I said, this hunk o' junk wastes not only the talents of the aforementioned stars, but also the talents of Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore; the only excuse that anyone could have for starring in this would be a financial strain. All in all, not only was this a poor excuse for a movie, but 1996 was truly a low point for the usually dependable Alan Alda - he also starred in the dreadfully horrible "Everyone Says I Love You", Woody Allen's worst movie ever.
As just an extra note, I might add a little something. People didn't like "The Cable Guy" (directed by Ben Stiller) because they thought that Jim Carrey was wrong for the role; I liked the movie's impending sense of doom. "Flirting with Disaster" essentially takes a good idea and stretches it out until it turns into a bunch of random strands that lead nowhere. So that's my assertion: Ben Stiller's good movie disappeared, while his bad movie was exalted. Shame on everyone.
The photography is shot in full and long shots throughout most of the movie. Russell must have used deep-focus shots when filming because the surrounding background is clear around the characters, using a wide-angle or short lens. The characters are never off of the screen except for a few instances when we see a plane flying or a car driving and then we have voice-overs. The dialogue is always continuous- there is never a break in the script which works well because the screenplay is well written and clever on its insights on the little inconveniences of everyday life. Although all of these events are too unbelievable too happen all at once, they are all real life comedic situations that could happen to anyone. When compiled together with this plot line, we have this film before us.
Although this is a typical movie in the sense that it does not break any barriers or do anything creatively in its techniques in telling the story, the plot and screenplay do enough justice in making the film entertaining for the audience and one of those films you can just sit down, relax, and have fun viewing because it makes sense and fits together. This aspect is not like many Hollywood films released today, with their gaping holes that leave the viewer feeling unfulfilled. Altogether this was a good film, even though it did fit many of the typical Hollywood stereotypes.
I kept watching, hoping that it would get better. But the more I watched, the more I thought the screenplay was the byproduct of watching too many Woody Allen movies.
The biggest problem was that I just couldn't believe what was going on before my eyes. Maybe I'm too much of a "meat and potatoes" mindset, but the characters and situations just got more and more unrealistic and I cared less and less about these people.
This is only the third David O. Russell film I've seen. SPANKING THE MONKEY was clever. After trying to watch it three times I finally gave up on I HEART HUCKABEES. After this, I've added him to my mental checklist of Film Makers to Avoid.
Hack though Mr. Russell may be, though, he couldn't get a bad performance out of Richard Jenkins.
Combine the annoyingly "hip" 20-something characters played by Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, tea Leoni and mix in the totally stupid older people, Liberal icons like Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore, all of whom still are not out of their 1960s' mentalities) and enduring this for the full --- minutes is a real feat.
The only disasters here, besides the title are the cast and story.It did a lot more than just flirt with disaster.
In short, it is everything that the "Fockers" movies aren't. I went back and watched it simply out of protest, out of feeling slimy from having to encounter them again.
And I was shocked that it seemed too slow until the third act. Part of the problem was that I knew where it was going, and much of the development depends on you having the same insecurity about the future as Stiller's character. But the larger part was simply that subtle, soft humor may be dead, even for someone like me who thrives on the slight brush.
Perhaps now "50 First Dates" is as soft as we can get these days.
I urge you to see this for a dive into gentle humor, even though it may be too faded. Screwball keeps. This stuff doesn't. It is a film that doesn't belong about a man who doesn't.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
I admittedly have not watched anything else by this director and haven't seen everything by Woody Allen, but I felt that Flirting... should have included some kind of gushing "thank you" to Woody somewhere in the credits.
The types of characters and their accompanying lines were obviously inspired by Woody (but his are usually comedic). In sum, we have 90 minutes of several unlikeable, non-humorous, bozos running around the country.
This was actually the first movie with Ben Stiller I ever watched. I have tended to avoid his movies afterwards, with the sole gem of his entire career being "Mystery Men."
There was not one laugh in this film for me. The writing was cliché and boring. The characters are all despicable people who I never developed an iota of sympathy for. All this movie ends up being is a couple hours of my life which are among the most excruciating. Avoid it with a passion.
Find something else to do with the time; walk the dog, play with the kids, examine your navel but don't watch this movie.