"Flirting With Disaster" does in fact flirt with disaster, in its very choice of forms. It's farce, one of those mad whirligigs that takes a single slightly illogical premise and punches it out toward infinity, based on the mad optimism that its creators can continue to crank and twist the plot in ever more absurd ways until it resembles a map of DNA as drawn by a chimp. But it can't just be fast and frantic. It's also got to be funny.
Well, it's funny as hell and that's all there is to it.
Written and directed by the frighteningly talented David O. Russell, who unleashed "Spanking the Monkey" on an unsuspecting world, this one watches as a moony, self-obsessed young man takes his wife on a cross-country odyssey in search of his real parents (he was given up for adoption) and the trip keeps acquiring new recruits (finally it's a posse on an odyssey) and meeting bizarre characters who turn out to be repugnant. It's "Roots" as re-imagined by one of the Three Stooges if he'd been to Amherst.
Ben Stiller plays a young New York entomologist named Mel Coplin who has been raised Jewish by his very Jewish parents (George Segal and -- yes! -- Mary Tyler Moore, who's wonderful as a nagging Brooklyn yenta). But he knows he's adopted and upon the birth of his own son, he's so obsessed with the idea of finding his biological parents that he cannot name the boy. Thus he drags the unnamed baby and his wife (Patricia Arquette) off on the trip, accompanied by the adoption agency woman, an ever-helpful but completely incompetent and baffled Tea Leoni.
The quest is more like a juggernaut or a snowball that acquires mass as it accelerates. But the brilliance of the concept (which poor Stiller can't quite bring to life) is that Mel, who seems like a font of new-age pieties and sentimentalities, has enough old-male hormones left in his nominally devoted body to make the thing an ordeal by testosterone. First, he's incredibly attracted to Leoni, and Russell strategically reveals her physical charms almost like one of those strip-tease calendars from the '50s, and that's one disaster Mel flirts with continually.
Then, one version of his mother turns out to have two volleyball-playing beach twins in bikinis getting ready for the "finals," and we see Mel's little eyes light with want as he yearns to mingle with his new "sisters." Alas, this turns out to be a false start on Mel's journey to his roots.
But that's the comic technique of the film: Each character is presented conventionally, almost stereotypically, and then we learn that underneath there lurks a whole other being, usually at complete cross-purposes to the initial sentimentalized image. zTC Everybody turns out to be rotten, even the new-age dreamers ultimately revealed to be Mel's true parents (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin).
It's a film full of surprises, Mary Tyler Moore being merely the largest. She's wonderful as a hardened, hostile, pushy crone, smoking like a demon and reaching out to control desperately what she cannot. But another is Richard Jenkins, whose name will not be familiar to you but whose face will. Jenkins, with a bleak, craggy face and a bleak bald dome, has always played cops. He plays a cop here, too.
But his cop is gay and, liberated by some accidentally applied LSD, turns into a sprite of astonishing grace and freedom, utterly unexpected from so grim and coplike a visage.
"Flirting With Disaster" is only marred by its central performances. There's something too soft and precious about Stiller that somehow keeps him from registering with quite the force of everyone else in the film; and Arquette, this year's Melanie Griffith, is somehow not terribly convincing here either.
But any movie that shows Mary Tyler Moore commiting a sexual act that is still technically illegal in 26 states is a winner in my book!
'Flirting With Disaster'
Starring Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette
Directed by David O. Russell
Released by Miramax
Rated R (nudity, profanity, sexual situations)
Pub Date: 3/29/96