Long before director David O. Russell was clamoring for Oscar; he was making some of the smartest,
and most original films. Flirting with Disaster (1996) was not O. Russell's first feature film that was Spanking the Monkey (1994). Both films are hilarious, but Disaster and his other film Three Kings (1999) are his best, ironically neither of these films got any attention from the Academy, and his lesser films The Fighter (2010), and Silver Linings Playbook (2012) won Oscars.
Moving away from the Oscar let's focus on Flirting with Disaster, which is such a great ensemble piece. The film stars Ben Stiller as Mel Coplin, Mel was adopted and he decides to look for his parents after his son is born. Mel uses an adoption agent named Tina Kalb played Tea Leoni. Once Tina locates his birth parent, she Mel and Mel's wife Nancy Coplin played by Patricia Arquette head out on a dysfunctional road trip to meet/find Mel's birth family.
The premise seems pedestrian, and typical, but David O. Russell is a master of quirk in both his scripts, and his direction. All of O. Russell's early work ranging even up up until 2004's I Heart Huckabees held on to this magnanimous quality. O. Russell built a great dark humor within this film, and it never tries too hard to play with your emotions. Flirting with Disaster is just plain hilarious, twisted, and all around one of the most underrated films of the 90s, and all time. This film is the first glimpse into the genius of David O. Russell, and I hope American Hustle brings back that genius.
Enough swiping at O. Russell's grasps for Oscar; the man knows how to direct a great ensemble. Ben Stiller is great in one of his first roles, as that hapless guy just trying to do right. Patricia Arquette is also quite good as his wife who just wants her husband to pay attention to her needs, the jokes about her giving him a blow job, kill me. While Stiller and Arquette are hilarious, my favorite lead in the film is Tea Leoni, her neurosis and constant mess ups with Mel's parentage are some of the funniest mometns in the film.
This film could also not exist without Mel's adopted parents, played so well and with perfect guilt by Mart Tyler Moore in a more like her Ordinary People character with humor, and George Segal a master of dark humor. On the journey to finding his birth parents Mel's interactions become funnier by the moment, ranging from this southern woman living in San Diego played by the great character actress Celia Weston to his actual crazy LSD loving parents played by Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda. On the road to his parents he meets two federal officers, the scene stealers of the film Richard Jenkins and young josh Brolin. They are both a team at work and in the sheets. Each of these actors plays their part so brilliantly, forming one of the best ensembles, but favorite joke is when they keep making Richard Jenkins character switch seats/cars or anything because everyone finds him annoying, priceless.
O. Russell knocked this film out of the park, and this is one of my new favorite comedies, the writing the acting are all so sharp, and this is the beginning of the career of a man who would direct great character studies, win our hearts, and make you laugh a lot. Flirting with Disaster one hilarious film, and a classic.