Monday, June 16, 2008

Flirting With Disaster

By David Luhrssen
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Are we formed by genetics or environment—“that whole nature versus nurture thing”—as the Alan Alda character in Flirting With Disaster might put it? The Miramax comedy, directed by David O. Russell (ThreeKings), was one of my Top 10 movies the year it was released, 1996. Watching it again on DVD for the first time since then, it has lost none of its eccentric spark.

The disaster at the heart of the film is the obsession by Mel Coplin (one of Ben Stiller’s best roles) for finding his long-lost biological parents. The journey turns into an odyssey, beginning with a series of mistakes by the adoption agency, represented by an attractive counselor (Tea Leoni) whose clinical psychobabble falls short of conveying empathy. Working with misinformation that found its way into the data base, she sends Mel, his wife (Patricia Arquette) and their four-month old boy on a chase after the wrong parents, including a proud daughter of the Confederacy and an anti-Semitic ex-Hells Angel.

By the time they arrive at the remote New Mexico home of Mel’s actual biological parents (Alda and Lili Tomlin), they’ve picked up a pair of traveling companions, a gay Secret Service agent and his bisexual professional-personal partner (Mel’s wife high school boyfriend). Imagine the agents’ dismay when it turns out that the parents are a pair of artsy Deadheads, still brewing up acid in the woodshed. Meanwhile, sparks are flying between Mel and his counselor.

The humor is deadpan at first but as the cross-continental story gains momentum, the hilarity compounds. While the script acknowledges an inclination or two rooted in the genes, it comes down on the side of environment as the determining factor in human personality. Mel, neurotic and given to kvetching, is more like his adopted New York Jewish parents (Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal) than he was willing to admit.

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