By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 05, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST

David O. Russell has a twisted mind; I like that in a man. In his 1994 directing and screenwriting feature debut, Spanking the Monkey, the then 35-year-old filmmaker suggested that it is not inconceivable for a horny college kid to end up in bed with his mother, and for an audience — an American audience, that is — to find stuff in the situation to laugh about. Making incest amusing is tricky, and it’s usually a European specialty act, but Russell piloted Monkey like a guy with good reflexes who enjoys barreling over hazards in a kicky electric golf cart.

With a 1994 Sundance Audience Award in his pocket, a bigger budget, and a larger cast at his disposal, Russell has traded up to steering a cute sports coupe in Flirting with Disaster: Now he gets to work with marquee-value actors; now he gets to set his scenes in places it takes planes to get to; now he gets to bring his interesting take on the knotty ties that bind to a more mainstream audience. But there’s a price to be paid for film-festival success: Ben Stiller, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda — these aren’t your usual wifty indie-film inhabitants; these are big performers with big teeth and big energy who need big stuff to do to keep them interested. (Stiller didn’t have enough to do in If Lucy Fell, and as a result the poor guy was reduced to wearing dreadlocks to amuse himself.) So Russell has had to fortify this ingratiatingly antic, whacked-out comedy with so many curves, reversals, and set pieces that the individually funny episodes, added up, don’t advance the characters so much as take them — and us — on a magical mystery tour.

Mel (Stiller, relatively restrained) is a distracted, standard-in-NYC Jewish neurotic, a bug scientist with a patient wife called Nancy (Patricia Arquette, soft and sweet) and an infant son who still doesn’t have a first name. Why? Because Mel, who’s adopted, can’t focus on his kid (or, for that matter, resume a sex life with his spouse) until he finds out who his biological parents are. But Mel soon lucks out: Tina (Tea Leoni, elegantly deadpan and all legs), a workaholic soon-to-be-divorced shrink-in-training at the adoption agency that placed him, finds the name and address of his birth mother, then tags along to document the reunion as Mel, Nancy, and the baby hit the road in a grown-ups’ edition of the kids’ book Are You My Mother?

In some inspired casting choices, Russell has installed Moore and George Segal as Mel’s adoptive parents. (She’s a gleefully unrestrained control freak: In her first scene, she flashes her bra at her daughter-in-law, urging the curvy younger woman to harness her assets.) He pairs Tomlin and Alda brilliantly as Mel’s hippie birth parents (she still makes bad pottery, they still cook up LSD in their basement, and every scene that includes the two old pro actors, shot with kaleidoscopic camera angles, is a trippy pleasure). He adds Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin as a couple of federal agents who get caught up in the family circus. And along the way, Russell supplies bright observations about rental cars, bed-and-breakfast establishments, Jerry Garcia, video cameras, and why relationships, by blood or by marriage, are God’s biggest cosmic joke.

Flirting With Disaster isn’t as anarchic as Spanking the Monkey — it’s loaded with a few too many safety features to soar. But episode for episode, it’s one of the ha-ha funniest comedies currently at a theater near you. And it’s certainly one of the most sophisticated, eschewing bodily-function jokes and nailing the little old ladies who preside over America’s B&B’s like so many blue-haired tyrants.

Flirting with Disaster

  • Movie
  • R
  • 92 minutes
  • David O. Russell