What ‘Flirting with Disaster’ Teaches Us About What David O. Russell Has Lost, 20 Years Later

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“I mean, how do I know?” asks Ben Stiller, early in David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster. “I don’t! Anything’s possible!” He’s discussing his uncertainty about his heritage, but those two words – “anything’s possible” – felt like a mission statement in the early works of Mr. Russell, particularly in Flirting, which came out 20 years ago today. So it’s strange to revisit that film in light of the filmmaker he has become: something of an indie elder statesman, whose general aesthetic of controlled chaos has remained constant, but whose ends for achieving it have shifted into a decidedly less reliable mode.

Flirting with Disaster, in case you’ve forgotten or haven’t seen it (and in the latter case, shame on you) concerns Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller), a scientist and recent father in the midst of an identity crisis. He’s been unable to settle on a name for his new son, and is having weird intimacy issues with his wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette); he decides his woes are all wrapped up in not knowing who his biological parents are. So over the objections of his adopted parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal), he packs up his wife, their baby, and Tina (Téa Leoni), the kind woman from the adoption agency who’d like to use his experience as research for a study on adoption, and heads off to meet his real parents.

Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, and Téa Leoni in “Flirting with Disaster”

So it’s a road movie, and a family comedy, and neurotic Woody Allen-style rom-com, but none of those crisp, compact boxes can properly contain this wild, strange, unruly picture. Everyone in Russell’s script is a little bit nuts, which is a risk; even Marx Brothers movies have Zeppo (or a Zeppo surrogate) as a grounding anchor. But they’re not nuts in the same ways, which creates sparks when he turns them loose on each other – Mel is neurotic, Nancy is impatient, Tina is defeatist, and his adopted parents are paranoid and guilt-driven, so when Russell puts them in the same room with each other and Mary Tyler Moore ends up chasing George Segal around the apartment with a wheel of cheese, it not only makes sense, but it seems about the only possible outcome.

On the road, thanks to a series of miscalculations and misinformation from Nancy, they end up in the custody of a pair of ATF agents, Paul (Richard Jenkins) and Tony (Josh Brolin, looking about a day older than he did in Goonies). Turns out, small world, Tony and Nancy went to high school together, and there’s a little bit of heat between them, which further complicates the spark that’s happening between Mel and Tina. So in light of that, Mel shouldn’t get jealous – on top of the fact that Tony is in a relationship with Paul. But Nancy’s offhand invitation that the agents should join them on the New Mexico leg of their trip sets up a complicated configuration of jealousies, attractions, and irritations. (Or, as his biological father ends up putting it, “Is this some kind of swapping thing?”)

Once those conflicts are set up and begin paying off, Flirting with Disaster plays like a classic screwball comedy with a decidedly ‘90s edge – thanks to not just the Southern Culture on the Skids songs, but the freedom of the film’s potential couplings and the curiosity of its worldview (if not always its protagonist). By the end of Mel and company’s journey, as Paul is having an LSD trip and Tony is licking Nancy’s armpit and both sets of Mel’s parents are crashing their matching white Ford Tauruses into each other, there’s a clear sense that the characters have lost control of their situation – but not that Russell has lost control of his film.

Patricia Arquette and Josh Brolin in “Flirting with Disaster”

And that sure hand is increasingly missing in Russell’s work as of late. It’s not just that his subject matter and storytelling are so much safer; it’s that his methodology has made his films so spotty. He now works in a loose style, tossing scripts and leaning heavily on improvised dialogue, camerawork, and blocking. It’s easy to understand his desire to insert some energy and spontaneity into overly familiar genres like the boxing movie (The Fighter), the boy-meets-girl rom-com (Silver Linings Playbook), and the con picture (American Hustle); such stylistic tics and net-free tightrope walking increases the stakes for stories that might need them.

But when he attempted to tell another story of a big, messy family and their frazzled dynamics with last winter’s Joy , it became clear that this is not a catch-all solution. In fact, that film looks even thinner and grimmer when compared with Flirting. If anything, Joy makes clear that it’s time for Russell to lock himself in his office and re-learn how to write a screenplay – and Flirting is a great one, precisely because it feels written, a quality he now seems disinclined to embrace. But it’s full of small, perfect, writerly moments: the deadpan reaction Stiller and Arquette share when Leoni describes a bad marriage as “the kind where you have to make dates to have sex” (something they’ve just tried to do, and blown), the perfectly timed slap when Stiller tells Leoni she reminds him of his mother, the withering stare she gives him when he tries to recover by insisting, “She’s a good person, she’s got a lotta great qualities…”

The writing, timing, and execution of those moments, and many others like them that pepper Flirting with Disaster, require a precision that Russell doesn’t seem to even aim for anymore. But in light of the diminishing returns of his recent work, it might be worth re-investigating.

Flirting with Disaster is streaming on Netflix.