Kin of Comedies

The intense need of so many adopted children to connect with their biological families can be puzzling to those of us not in their shoes. Reengaging with the people who gave you up as a baby has the potential to damage one's link with the people who then took you in, and the odds of being disappointed by what you find seem pretty high. It seems like, well, flirting with disaster.

Still, the urge is well-known, and from it director David O. Russell has spun the road comedy Flirting With Disaster. It's an uneven but inventively zany sophomore effort for Russell, who made an impressive debut with Spanking the Monkey.

If you're among the 23 or so people in the world--apart from film critics--who saw Monkey, you know that it was a tragicomedy about mother-son incest. You also may have been amazed at the degree of unexploitative filmmaking intelligence with which this excruciating subject was explored. Flirting isn't on the same level of accomplishment or daring--second films rarely are--but it compensates for this by not being such an ordeal.

The hero of Flirting is Mel (Ben Stiller), a young museum etymologist--quite the hip job for movie protagonists these days. Mel has decided, shortly after the birth of his son, that it's time to find out from whom his quarrelsome, badly wired parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) adopted him. On the research dime of the adoption agency, Mel, his fleshy, nurturing wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), their baby and an agency shrink (Tea Leoni) with a video camera set out on a road trip to pull up Mel's biological roots.

Agency mistakes and other far-out circumstances lead this band into encounters with psychotic truckdrivers, federal agents who are also gay lovers, LSD manufacturers, tyrannical bed-and-breakfast ladies and, most alarmingly of all, a blond California housewife with a framed line drawing of Ronald Reagan on her wall--she's one of Mel's possible moms.

Along with all this external wackiness, the travelers fall prey to their own romantic neediness. A palpable sexual tension arises between Mel and the leggy shrink, while poor, neglected Nancy, left lugging the baby around like a mother opossum, catches the eye of the younger and more polymorphously perverse of the government men (Josh Brolin).

Russell, who claims the script grew out of the efforts of his adopted sister to find her birth parents, maintains a freewheeling, episodic structure throughout. The atmosphere is rather like that of the "mod" blackout comedies that tried to catch on in the '60s and '70s, most especially Francis Ford Coppola's neglected early comedy You're a Big Boy Now.

Some of Flirting's episodes fall flat, and some even border on ugliness, but many are riotously funny, and in a film like this, no one demands a score of 100. What's most admirable is how Russell knits everything together--the social satire, the sex farce, the slapstick--into a big comic comment on the psychology of the family ideal.

And Russell wears his obsessions on his sleeve so courageously, he makes the young Woody Allen look like a prude. Russell's particular fixation here is on oral sex. His characters chat about the various techniques as if they're swapping recipes, and he somehow talked Mary Tyler Moore into (discreetly) simulating the act on Segal (I'd love to have sat in on the meeting where Russell pitched this idea to her).

Moore gleefully digs into her change-of-pace (and PR-shrewd) role, and the supporting players, among them Richard Jenkins, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Celia Weston, David Patrick Kelly and the amusingly bewildered Segal, all seem to be having fun. Arquette here adds a layer of companionable domesticity to her usual sexy exoticism, while Leoni, husky voice strangled by infatuation, manages a stereotype-free reading of a man-hungry career woman.

Stiller is fine, but his career continues to frustrate. He last turned up in a bad supporting role in Eric Schaeffer's feeble romantic comedy If Lucy Fell; before that, he directed and costarred in Reality Bites, a script he'd have been better off parodying. Stiller's short-lived TV show suggested that he might be the talent who would save TV comedy, but in the movies until now he has put himself in the service of artists who can't hold a candle to him in terms of potential.

Flirting With Disaster is certainly the best film with which Stiller has had an important connection, but even though he plays the lead sympathetically, he's basically a straight man to the rest of the cast. It makes one feel like scolding him--he's like a student with A ability who keeps bringing home B minuses.

A Family Thing: Directed by Richard Pearce; with Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones, Irma P. Hall, Michael Beach and Grace Zabriske. Rated R.

A Family Thing is also about a son searching for his biological roots. Robert Duvall plays a racist Arkansas redneck who learns, after the death of the woman who raised him, that his birth mother was a black woman--he's the result of a rape by his father. His adoptive mother's final wish is that he seek out his birth mother and her people and "know them for your family." He's appalled, but wanting to honor his mother's wishes he traces the family to Chicago. The mother has long since passed on, but her son (James Earl Jones), a city police officer, lives there with his aunt (Irma P. Hall) and son (Michael Beach).

The two men meet, coolly--Jones already knows the story, but prefers to forget it. They part, but then Duvall gets mugged and, with nowhere else to go in the Windy City, must stay with his newfound relations. A slight, wary bond is formed.

If the film ended about midpoint, it would be a strong short, a moving but not mawkish depiction of a life challenge to two men's long-held bigotries, well-acted and solidly directed by Richard Pearce (Leap of Faith). But beginning with the moment when Jones tells Duvall "Tip your hat to Dixie for me," the contrivances by which screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson keep the story going grow increasingly heavy and crudely carpentered.

The film keeps going wrong in small ways, but except for one nearly unwatchable scene in which a drunken Duvall accosts members of a celebrating black family in a bar--he talks to them about the injustice of hiring quotas!--it doesn't go horribly wrong. Whatever the faults of its structure, Thornton's and Epperson's dialogue is quite speakable, and Duvall, Jones, Beach and the spirited newcomer Hall perform it with heart and humor. Jones gives his character a slight stammer, a trait which, he claims, he had toovercome for real in his youth. A charming irony, considering that he's now THE voice.--M. V. Moorhead

Flirting With Disaster:
Directed by David O. Russell; with Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda, George Segal, Richard Jenkins, Celia Weston and David Patrick Kelly.

Rated

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