Flirting With Disaster (1996): David O. Russell’s Twisted, Brilliant Road Comedy, Starring Ben Stiller

That David O. Russell is a director of brilliant ideas became clear with his follow-up to  his impressive 1994 debut, Spanking the Monkey, Flirting With Disaster, a darkly funny comedy, and inspired piece of lunacy about the universal need to establish biological roots.
Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)
Flirting with Disaster
Flirting with Disaster Poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster
More about David O. Russell in my book:
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 birth 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 who moves back in with his mother in order to resolve his more general problems with women.

Please read our review of David O. Russell’s Oscar nominee, American Hustle

American Hustle: Populist Entertainment

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 prospective reunion.

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, such as 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 silly moments. 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.

Despite race reviews, the movie was only a moderate success at the box-office.


Ben Stiller as Mel Coplin
Patricia Arquette as Nancy Coplin
Téa Leoni as Tina Kalb
Mary Tyler Moore as Pearl Coplin
George Segal as Ed Coplin
Alan Alda as Richard Schlichting
Lily Tomlin as Mary Schlichting
Richard Jenkins as Paul Harmon
Josh Brolin as Tony Kent
Celia Weston as Valerie Swaney
Glenn Fitzgerald as Lonnie Schlichting
Beth Ostrosky as Jane
David Patrick Kelly as Fritz Boudreau
Nadia Dajani as Jill


Directed, written by David O. Russell
Written by David O. Russell
Produced by Dean Silvers
Cinematography Eric Alan Edwards
Edited by Christopher Tellefsen
Music by Stephen Endelman
Distributed by Miramax Films

Release date: March 22, 1996

Running time: 93 minutes
Budget $7 million
Box office $14,702,438

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