When the Republicans bellow for family films, they probably aren't thinking of David O. Russell's stuff. But moviegoers wondering if they'll ever get to laugh again in the yuk-free zone of the Nineties need only catch Russell's Flirting With Disaster to have their faith restored. Two years ago this bright new filmmaker made the funniest and most harrowing picture we're ever likely to see about mother-son incest (Spanking the Monkey) on a tiny $80,000 budget. Russell's second feature, sprinkled with Generation X stars like Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette and old hands like George Segal and Lily Tomlin, is even more deliciously subversive, a rollicking take on the secret ailments of the American family that spares no one--least of all its creator. It confirms the arrival of a major comedy talent, his knives sharpened.
Russell, now 37, apparently took inspiration from his adopted sister's recent search for her biological parents. She might have had misadventures, but they could hardly match the inflated predicaments of Disaster's Mel Coplin (Stiller), a bewildered young Manhattan entomologist who's similarly bugged by the mystery of his origins. In this most polished of sitcoms, we drop in on poor Mel at a critical juncture--he and wife Nancy (Arquette) are having sexual problems in the wake of their first child's birth, and Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), a leggy adoption-agency psychologist with some crossed wires of her own, claims to have just tracked down his birth mother in far-off San Diego. Fascinated but undone, Mel imagines all kinds of parental permutations--bag lady with naked man, naked man with socialite, socialite with lunatic--all beautifully chronicled, flash by flash, in the film's dazzling opening sequence. But this is just the start of the general trauma. Before he's done with Mel and Nancy and Tina (and with us), Russell puts everybody through a mad chase from suburban Southern California to the Michigan tundra to the sunny Southwest in search of the Holy Grail--personal identity. Bob Hope's old road movies were a kick, but what we get from our travels here is a jolt of postmodern attitude juiced up with hit-and-run comedy. Witness a good Samaritan getting Maced on a freeway or an aging mother-in-law showing off her support bra to a roomful of strangers.
Meanwhile, the matter at hand. Can a boozy, broken-down Southern belle (Celia Weston) with a portrait of Ronald Reagan in the hallway and a glass menagerie in the rumpus room be Mel's real mother? Is a hot-tempered, truck-driving ex-Hell's Angel named Fritz Boudreau (David Patrick Kelly) really dear old Dad? What about the artsy-craftsy dropouts Richard and Mary Schlicting (Alan Alda and Tomlin) still clinging to hippiedom in blissed-out New Mexico? Each stop along the road piles more absurdity than enlightenment upon Our Hero--along with the tyrannies of bed-and-breakfast proprietors. Throw in a pair of highly unorthodox Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin), a bit of partner switching, some misplaced tabs of windowpane and Mel Coplin's terminally neurotic adoptive parents (Segal and Mary Tyler Moore--cast gloriously against type), and what you get is a comic festival of dysfunction. It's fueled by filmmaker Russell's faultless comic dialogue, his keen feel for generation gaps past and present and a healthy contempt for the hip pieties of the 1960s.
"I dunno--I dropped a lot of baby batter in my time," one of the candidates for father-of-Mel proudly announces. Big-eyed Mel dunno, either. But both of Russell's feature-length comedies--the one about incest and the one about real parents who turn out to be a real nightmare--make you wonder what growing up in suburban Larchmont, New York, was like for him, how he got through his political-science major at Amherst, and how he became a young union organizer in Maine, then a documentarian, before turning to fiction films. For now, he isn't talking about his own mom and dad, so we can only speculate. Suffice it to say that instead of smashing the toys in his room, he's become an authentic comic voice for the Nineties--when all families are a mess in one way or another, when searching for your roots can be a journey through a snakepit, when the familiar might turn out to be more nourishing than the exotic.
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Russell explores this hazardous social terrain with sharp wit but a minimum of mean spirit. He seems to save the most painful barbs for himself and his own vulnerabilities, and he's as mercilessly funny about the personal obsessions of twentysomethings as he is about the follies of the boomer generation. He ties a dozen travesties and a dozen vivid characters together in a seamless comic package that rings perfectly true for this time and place and puts the recent work of Woody Allen or Andrew Bergman to shame--not to mention TV's cookie-cutter urban sitcoms (Seinfeld on down), which strike a similar pose but don't deliver the goods.
Even the Republicans might do well to take notice of David Russell, because he's saying something about American life that many others don't seem to have noticed. Here's hoping he's got enough family trauma left in the tank to power a dozen more movies.
Flirting With Disaster. Written and directed by David O. Russell. With Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore and Alan Alda.