Monday, March 4, 2013

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #60 - Flirting With Disaster (1996, dir. David O. Russell)

Before all the hubbub surrounding his latest Oscar-nominated release in theatres, The Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell has built a career coming from hearty film stock with a slant towards the risk-taking side of being born from independent film. Despite the high caliber releases of such films as Three Kings (which paired him with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg), The Fighter (Wahlberg again along with Christian Bale) Russell has always circumvented the typical rules of making a Hollywood picture and been one of the few lucky filmmakers (like Soderbergh alongside him) with a Sundance Film Festival teething ring to cut his own swath in mainstream cinema.
But of his earliest films, which includes the hilarious and shocking mother/son incest romp Spanking The Monkey, it is perhaps his second feature, Flirting With Disaster, that packs the most punch as a film merely for the fact that it is one of the greatest filmed comedies of the independent film movement (and probably the best comedy ever released by the Weinstein lorded Miramax films).
In the film we meet Mel and Nancy Coplin (played by a winning Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette) a young couple with a newborn son that Mel, trying to subvert an identity crisis due to being adopted and having no connection to his roots, refuses to name until he can find his birth parents and find some clarity. Enter Tina Kalb (an always appreciated Tea Leoni) who comes on from the adoption agency as his caseworker (and part-time psychology student) who suggests she join the Coplins in a road trip to meet his birth parents. This plan not only unsettles Nancy, who notices an obvious connection with the pair, but Mel’s adopted parents as well (an amazing Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) who feel slighted by Mel’s quest and can’t understand how they raised such an ungrateful child. Despite everyone’s pleading Mel & co. set off looking for the Schlichting clan that, due to Tina’s own newbiness, is not as easy as expected. Along the way an old flame of Nancy’s pops up, now a gay cop and seeking to adopt a child with his cop/partner (both played by the great Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins), which irks Mel beyond words. When everything comes to a boil the time comes to meet the Schlichtings and let’s just say that the true best of this great film is saved for last.
For only being his second feature film Russell pulls some masterful moves with Flirting With Disaster. He hands his shining and hilarious writing to a game cast (there literally isn’t one bad apple in the whole bunch) and builds a house of cards that, the bigger and taller it gets, we can’t wait to watch collapse and fall apart.
After Flirting Russell took a semi-serious turn in his Three Kings but returned to broad comedy with the delicious and perplexing I Heart Huckabees that will remind you of Flirting’s bananas nature and comic genius even more. If there is one thing to find sentimental in Flirting it is simply that we seem to be long past a time when even a risk-taker like Miramax would produce a film as nuanced and honest as this one. The Silver Linings Playbook is great but continues to note a seriousness that often takes away from its fun, but Flirting has nothing to prove except that it exists to make you laugh and remember that a quality comedy isn’t that easy to come by anymore.

Keith Garcia
Programming Manager
Denver Film Society

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