FLIRTING WITH DISASTER at 25: To Break Things and Be Forgiven

Mel Coplin cannot name his child. This is the inciting plot point of writer-director David O. Russell’s second and, in my opinion, best film: 1996’s Flirting with Disaster, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. It belongs in the same upper echelon of satirical road trip comedies as Albert Brooks’ Lost in America and Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels but is rarely granted that level of recognition, perhaps overshadowed in the popular imagination by Russell’s flashier but less soulful later efforts. Watching it now, there’s something quaint, even wholesome, about Disaster’s more pint-sized focus and ambitions; its entire budget could probably match the cost of one of American Hustle’s needle drops. It’s a portrait of a distinctly dysfunctional family, released during the height of the Clinton years, picking up on the ambient anxieties of the you-can-have-it-all era and mining it for painful laughs. But, like pretty much every character in the film, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

Let’s get back to Mel, who is played with exquisitely calibrated neuroticism by Ben Stiller. Mel cannot name his child because he doesn’t understand where he came from. Mel was adopted as a baby by Pearl and Ed Coplin, played by an uncharacteristically ribald Mary Tyler Moore and perpetually harried George Segal, respectively. Though they are not his birth parents, it’s easy to see how they’ve rubbed off on Mel once they’re introduced in the sort of madcap multilayered “everyone talking at once and about different things” dinner sequence that will become this film’s recurring set piece. For someone like me, who grew up in a household that insisted on sedate nightly meals together that often unfolded with the television on in the background, these scenes hit the same pleasure centers as Moonstruck or Raising Arizona. It’s not that I recognize my own family in them, but the particularities of the arguments and the tangled affection informing them invite me, if only briefly, into a new, more emphatic one. Pearl and Ed are upset with Mel because, deep down, they fear they haven’t been enough for him. Because this is a David O. Russell comedy, that’s expressed by Moore boasting about the defiant buoyancy of her late-middle-aged breasts and Segal cautioning about the carjacking problem in San Diego, where Mel has just announced he’s heading with his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette, expertly capturing the heightened-stakes sensuality of new motherhood) and his hapless caseworker Tina (Tea Leoni, never sexier), who is recently divorced and feeling pressed for time, biologically speaking. Tina has identified San Diego as the residence of Mel’s birth mother, Valerie Swaney.

Hold on a minute, though. Let’s go back even further, to the very opening of the film. Before we’re introduced to any of Mel’s actual parents, we’re introduced to his idea of what a parent can be. Russell begins with a pre-credit sequence of imagined parental figures walking towards the camera as Mel describes their potential attributes. His deliberate tone never wavers, even as the contemplation of his lineage shifts from a wealthy woman in a spotless white powersuit to a shirtless hirsute homeless man flipping passerby the finger. (“Hi Dad!” his voiceover says fondly to the latter.) He then begins pairing these figures off in rapid succession, Russell dealing these odd couples to the viewer like a set of cards. Whether it’s a good hand or a bad one depends partly on luck and partly on perspective. If family is ultimately a story we tell about ourselves, Mel seems both overwhelmed and excited by the imminent discovery of his. But then he pulls out even further, imagining a whole different life for himself: another job, another city, another spouse. Who else could he have been, he asks, if even one of his real parents had raised him? It’s a relatable question. Whether your mother and father are your best friends or people you’ve never met, I think we all wonder, and worry, about what we’ve inherited from them, and how those inheritances set us on the path we’re on. How much do we owe to the people who “made” us? What do we risk losing of ourselves in the process of paying them back? And what might we gain if we stray from what we know towards what we want? If there’s a clear thematic throughline to Russell’s bifurcated career, aside from an abiding passion for eccentrics, it’s this dilemma, which stretches from the incestual hook of his debut Spanking the Monkey to the families, brought together by birth or happenstance, in American Hustle and Joy. What Mel is about to discover is that no path to personhood, or parenthood, is straightforward, especially in a country whose story about itself is as unsettled as America’s.

But those fractures are further in the future. First the ungainly foursome of Mel, Nancy, Tina, and baby have to get to California. Like many great screwballs before it, Flirting with Disaster is an Odyssey story, though Mel is trying to find a home rather than return to it. And, as with Odysseus, he will be tested many times before he succeeds, not least of which by Tina whose lustability is matched only by her incompetence. Having narrowly escaped the terrors of the “bump and rob” Ed foretold of on the freeway (the punchline of which I won’t spoil here), the travelers arrive on Valerie’s doorstep but it’s clear, at least to viewers, from the moment we see her that she’s not Mel’s biological mother. Played with a comically overdone Kentucky-fried accent by Celia Weston, Valerie is a blonde, blue-eyed, devoutly Christian woman, the polar opposite of everything Mel has ever known, which partly explains why he embraces her with such gusto. “Scottish-Finnish, I don’t know how to do that,” he marvels, like every white person who just got their 23-and-me results. She’s quick to reciprocate, as are her extremely Scandinavian-looking twin daughters, who tower over Stiller despite being high schoolers. Nancy, for her part, is a little more skeptical given Valerie’s Ronald Reagan portrait and Confederate pedigree. America is nothing if not tribal.

It’s in the moments that follow that Russell’s true affinity for the gathering-avalanche style of comedic filmmaking truly shines. There’s something wrong with Tina’s video camera so she and Mel go into another room to try and clean the gunk out. Using her skirt leads to a conversation about her previous history as a dancer which leads to them Indian wrestling which leads to Mel crashing into a display of glass Chinese Zodiac animals. “All children break things and all are forgiven,” Valerie insists sweetly, but her generosity sours the instant it’s discovered via a discrepancy in birth years that Mel is not her child. As Tina sorts out with a quick call to the agency, Valerie’s son is named Martin Coplin and lives in Florida. Now she wants Mel to pay for the damage so her insurance premium won’t go up. “I thought you said it was a gift from God,” he pleads. “That’s when I thought you were my son,” she replies. All of this happens in the span of less than five minutes. Screwball comedy, as Roger Ebert once wrote, is “an art so exacting and difficult that when it works it’s a miracle.” The same could be said of family. Flirting with Disaster understands this on a cellular level, dispensing its plot with the same breathless speed as someone recounting a story that everyone has heard before.

The film has a similarly tolerant exasperation towards its characters as a child might have to a long-winded parent. There’s no shortage of satirical targets in it – take Fritz Boudreau, the man who left Mel at the adoption agency thirty years ago. He lives in Gundle, Michigan, a small town somewhere in the same vicinity of the state’s oven mitt as Kalamazoo. Russell films the snowbound industrial scenery with the same on-the-fly shots as he did the labyrinthine highways and highrise-cluttered coasts that make up San Diego. The montages have the quality of a home movie, as if this is what Tina would be capturing if her camera worked correctly. If there’s a critique of flyover country buried in them, it’s comradely rather than condemnatory; the only consistent thing about America is how weird it all is. Where Valerie was all Southern hospitality, Fritz, as played by David Patrick Kelly, exhibits the sort of Midwestern hypermasculinity that calcifies in cold places. He says things like “I dropped a lot of baby batter in my day” and “You ain’t no bitch boy, are you Mel?” He also refers to his alleged son as having “sort of a Jew look,” though this is less a comment on the latent anti-Semitism of rural areas than a means to an end: Fritz dropped Mel off at the agency as a favor. His real parents are somewhere called Antelope Wells.

And so the gang must zag across the country again to New Mexico, now with a couple of ATF agents in tow, played by Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins (“long story,” as you might say to a new partner meeting in-laws for the first time). Paul (Jenkins) is high strung and rule-abiding; Tony (Brolin) is more unfiltered and went to high school with Nancy in Chicago. The agents are also, in a delayed reveal, a couple, though unlike many comedies of its era, Flirting with Disaster doesn’t play this partnership as a joke in and of itself. The laughs come instead from a mismatched understanding between the two of what this partnership should entail – in essence, that Tony wants a child and Paul is not so sure, in part because of Tony’s wandering eye which has now conveniently latched onto Nancy.

Russell (and Nancy, to some degree) dangles the possibility of extramarital dalliances into the proceedings, but ultimately this is a film that believes in the sanctity of domestic cohabitation, or at least reveres the hard work it takes to maintain it. In that sense, Flirting with Disaster shares some of the traditionalism of Judd Apatow’s oeuvre, minus the sanctimony (and runtime bloat). If Russell is interrogating the fraught question of nature versus nurture here, ultimately he argues for the middle ground, where both matter but only to a point. When Mel finally does meet Richard and Mary Schlichting, played by Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, they have a genuine warmth to them (unlike Valerie, they recognize Nancy as Mel’s wife instantly, rather than thinking it’s Tina). Their house may be at the end of an unlit dirt road but it has the bountifulness of people who’ve achieved their own form of the American dream. The Schlichtings (or “Shit Kings,” as Pearl Coplin insists on calling them) are much more permissive than Mel’s adopted parents, as evidenced by the behavior of their second twenty-something son, Lonny, who’s visibly seething at the ingress of this new, more conventionally successful brother. They coddle Lonny, but with the sort of new age-speak that suggests more familiarity with the teachings of EST than Dr. Spock (“even if you were Jeffrey Dahmer we would love you” is a typical sentiment). Mel seems taken aback, both by Lonny’s aggressive behavior and the reveal that his birth parents gave him up because they were in prison at the time for making LSD. He may share their genetics, but little of their values. While not every adopted child can say the same, he was likely better off being raised by conservative Jewish people on the Upper West Side. It’s this realization that allows him to reconcile with Nancy and finally name his baby: Garcia, after Jerry, whom the Schlichtings knew in San Francisco.

To run through every beat of the film’s madcap ending would take up too much space here (and rob first-time viewers of its joys), but it’s a conclusion particularly well-suited to Russell’s skills. He’s a notoriously demanding director on set, inappropriately and unforgivably so to some of his actors (though he and Tomlin seem to have patched things up). But it’s hard to deny his ability to get performers to zing off each other in dynamic and surprising ways. While his later films showcase an admirable facility for Scorsese-like Steadicam craft, the camerawork here feels more sprightly and loose, as if the wheels might fall off at any moment but never do. His handheld shots sneak around corners and volley between speakers like a child gawking at the hijinks of the grownups. At one point he even catches himself filming in a mirror but still keeps the take in. Flirting with Disaster isn’t just a title; it’s a creative philosophy, one Russell seems largely to have abandoned in his material (even as he may perpetuate that strategy with his personal interactions). Obviously fans can’t control the arc of a director’s career anymore than a parent can their child’s (unless they’re giving them seed money or a CEO position). And maturation brings growing pains on both sides. One of the great secrets of adulthood is that pain doesn’t stop once you reach a certain age, as Mel Coplin discovers. While I’d love to see Russell return to the more improvisatory feel of his filmmaking roots, I can still enjoy the echoes of it I see in his subsequent work. It’s the duty of different generations to disappoint one another. Of all America’s massive contradictions, maybe its most enduring is the simultaneous faith in manifest destiny and the possibility of new starts. Identity is fungible; it’s also undeniable. What we break always comes together again eventually somehow.