That David O'Russell is a director of brilliant ideas became clear with his follow-up to Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, an inspired piece of lunacy about the need to establish one's biological roots. Boasting a clever title, the movie thrusts the audience into a giddy adventure of confusion and mischance, brimming with loopy dialogue and anarchic digressions, but, like Spanking the Monkey, ultimately belying problems of tone control.
A Woody Allen neurotic type, Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) is a mild-mannered entomologist, who can't bring himself to name his infant son or have sex with his loving wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette) until he completes a manic cross-country search for his parents. The adopted son of maladjusted New Yorkers (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal), Mel convinces himself that his anxieties would vanish once his biological parents are located. A similar premise is used by Albert Brooks in Mother, about a middle-aged son moves back in with his mother to resolve his problems with women.
Reassured by the adoption agency that "the mystery of your unknown self is about to unfold," Mel and Nancy are joined by a sexy but inept counselor, Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), who's assigned to videotape the reunion. Like the engineer in Tom DiCillo's Box of Moonlight, the trio hit the road on a wild-goose chase that sends them all over the country, meeting along the way an assortment of eccentrics and oddballs.
Nancy, at a low point in both her marriage to Mel and self-confidence, contemplates an affair with Tony, her best friend who's openly gay. In a more typical studio movie, there would have been a sex scene between them, but wishing to "subvert expectations," Russell instructed Tony to court Nancy by licking her armpit.
The journey recalls vintage screwball comedies like Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve or The Palm Beach Story. Russell creates a physical comedy that moves at a breakneck pace so there's no time for the audience to reflect on its silliness. He shows facility for mocking such sacred American institutions as bed and breakfasts and rental cars, but he is not as witty as Sturges. Artificially induced physical situations serve as camouflage for lack of inventive writing.