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Flirting with Disaster

David O. Russell's 1996 sophomore effort, between his shocking indie debut Spanking the Monkey (1994) and his sublime Gulf War caper Three Kings (1999), may be the least effective of his opening troika, but that's nothing to be ashamed of, given the company. Ben Stiller stars in Flirting with Disaster as Mel Coplin, a entomologist plagued by a chronic indecision he attributes to questions over the identities of his birth-parents. Mel is so neurotic, he threatens to pass his adoptee identity crisis onto his five-month-old son, who he feels he cannot name until he learns more about his forebears. In a rare moment of action, Mel impulsively drags his insecure wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) and progeny across the country to meet his parents — a trip that is seriously bungled by the high-strung adoption case worker (Tea Leoni) arranging the reunion. Flirting with Disaster is, in many ways, a triumph of screwball comedy technique. Russell's writing is layered, witty, and inventive, and his directing is equally sharp. His casting, moreover, is note-perfect. Stiller, in his first leading role, is perfectly cast as the confused and self-doubting Mel, allowing the gifted comic actor to display all of the quirks, charisma, and vulnerabilities that cemented his stardom a few years later in hits like There's Something About Mary and Meet the Parents. George Segal, Mary Tyler Moore, Alan Alda, and Lily Tomlin nail their richly detailed supporting characters, and Russell keeps the pacing swift and lively. If comedy is hard, however, screwball is downright treacherous. Flirting with Disaster never mortally stumbles, but Russell's acute vision of rampant dysfunction works against him when, in a genre that depends greatly on characters making the wrong choices, he is unable to maintain empathy for his mostly unlikable and sometimes gratingly selfish subjects. Still, Russell's bravura skill at writing intelligent farce, coupled with the ace casting, keeps the movie bright and amusing even when the mounting tangle of self-imposed neuroses and tribulations becomes exhausting to the point of detachment. Also with Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins and David Patrick Kelley. Buena Vista/Miramax presents Flirting with Disaster as a Collector's Series disc with an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a somewhat anemic five-minute featurette, three marginally interesting deleted scenes, and two reels of outtakes. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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