One wouldn’t expect hilarity to ensue when in the process of searching for one’s biological parents, so I suppose Flirting with Disaster is one of the first screwball comedies to find the facetious humor in a subject matter so usually serious. It’s no surprise that it comes from the mind of David O. Russell, a filmmaker who's given us comedy gems like 2004’s polarizing I Heart Huckabees and 2012’s instant classic Silver Linings Playbook. Only his second feature, Flirting with Disaster further establishes his eye for character-driven comedy, putting his leads in precarious situation after precarious situation just to delight his viewers and boast his enviable ability to act as a ‘90s-era Preston Sturges. Plot comes second to sublimely crafted misunderstandings.
It stars Ben Stiller as Mel Coplin, a new father convinced that he cannot name his son until he meets his biological parents, much to the annoyance of his wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), and his neurotic mother and father (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal). After a few visits to his former adoption agency, he is finally given the answers needed to track down the people who abandoned him so many years ago; and so he and his wife hit the road, baby and sexy adoption agency employee Tina (Téa Leoni) in tow.
But what should be a simple journey of self-discovery goes haywire when Tina’s incompetence leads them to a various number of strangers, one comic situation piling on top of another. And it doesn’t help that Tina, effortlessly tempting, acts as a sex symbol in comparison to the moody, out-of-sorts Nancy. She could easily derail their marriage.
Funny how much of the film’s humor doesn’t branch off of Stiller, Arquette, or Leoni — they are a gaggle of straight-mans in a land of scene-stealers. Comedic champions await us after every wrong turn comes to an end. First we’re introduced to Moore and Segal, who bicker with the over-the-top ticklishness of George Costanza’s parents and make shrewd observations to Arquette’s Nancy without noticing their inappropriateness.
Then we get Celia Weston (the first in a line of faux biological parents), a blond screwball who forgives Mel for knocking over her entire China collection — it’s a chance to make up for all the childhood accidents that never got to happen! — until Tina delivers the news that they’re not related and it’s demanded that damages must be paid for.
After, we find ourselves in the presence of the gay cops (Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins) who arrest Mel for a misunderstanding involving a semi-truck and hey! — one of them knows Nancy from a few years ago. Our final destination comes in the form of Mary and Richard Schlichting (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda), Mel’s actual parents with an angsty teenage son and a bad habit of lawbreaking.
Flirting with Disaster is irreverent in the most giddy of ways, finding its comedy in unusual places, thoroughly appealing and fantastically written. Perhaps Russell should be in charge of more comedies of this sort; humor on a chaotic, human level is much more appetizing than bodily fixated gross-outs. Flirting with Disaster, dare I say it, is one of the most underrated movies of the 1990s, not necessarily because it’s a masterpiece but because it is so often sidelined as an early Russell project instead of a singular, wonderfully amusing film. A-