RopeofSilicon Movie Club: ‘Flirting with Disaster’ (1996)

Richard Jenkins, Patricia Arquette, Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni, George Segal, Mary Tyler Moore and Josh Brolin in Flirting with Disaster
Richard Jenkins, Patricia Arquette, Ben Stiller, Tea Leoni, George Segal, Mary Tyler Moore and Josh Brolin in Flirting with Disaster
Photo: Miramax

I need to be a little more careful about what films I add to the voting for future Movie Club selections. I don’t say this because David O. Russell‘s 1996 comedy Flirting with Disaster is bad — in fact I quite liked it and found it to be very funny — but because it is a rather straight-forward comedy that doesn’t really come to the table with much else to discuss. Though, where it fits in with the rest of the films in his career may generate some fun conversation.

Flirting with Disaster was Russell’s second feature-length film after 1994’s Spanking the Monkey (the only one of Russell’s films I have not yet seen). It features a massive list of notable names as the picture above indicates beginning with Ben Stiller playing Mel and Patricia Arquette as his wife Nancy.

The couple is having some issues as of late, one of them being Mel’s indecision over what to name their newborn baby boy, a decision he believes will come much easier once he learns a little more about himself, which means meeting his biological parents.

Assisted by Tina (Tea Leoni), who tells Mel she’s found his parents, the search would appear to be over as they pack up and head out, but their first stop only proves Tina’s incompetency. As the story moves on, clues begin to come together and Mel learns all he wanted to know and then some.

The film is funny, some times in over-the-top ways and sometimes in ways that are far more subtle, such as when Tina says, “I’m not sure I’m ready for an affair with a married man right now,” which had me howling at the silliness of the comment when looked at at face value, and the hilarity in the convincing way in which she delivered it.

I loved Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin as Richard and Mary, Mel’s biological parents, and I got a good laugh out of the moment Mel catches Josh Brolin licking Nancy’s armpit, which signaled the moment in all their lives where things had reached a point of absurdity they all simply chose to overlook and re-evaluate where their futures were headed.

Then there’s Richard Jenkins as the boyfriend of Brolin’s character, both of which are ATF agents. Jenkins’ high point comes after he’s mistakenly drugged at the dinner table by Mel’s insecure newfound brother Lonnie (Glenn Fitzgerald). His silent reactions as he learns Richard and Mary are still dealing acid out of their house (as seen in the clip to the right) are priceless.

This movie was far more entertaining than I expected and showcases Russell’s talents as a director and screenwriter. His screenplays clearly attract the attention of top notch talent and there is a connective tissue running throughout them all.

While Russell’s two recent films — The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook — are more dramas than they are anything else, it’s impossible to overlook the comedic aspects in each, Silver Linings in particular is a film people will have a hard time fitting into a genre box. Before that, I Heart Huckabees was pretty much a comedy (with some quirks I didn’t entirely care for) and Three Kings is something of an outlier, though it too does have its moments of humor. This, however, is not the connective tissue I see in Russell’s films, though it’s a tonal stamp that’s easy to see.

No, the one thing I notice is Russell’s honest approach to his characters. He may use some characters as punchlines more than others or even present them as cliches, but he never betrays these characters and it keeps you invested. After all, cliches aren’t always a bad thing, especially if you understand they exist for a reason and aren’t using them merely out of laziness.

It’s a bit of stretch to go too far when lavishing praise on Russell for Flirting with Disaster as I, for the most part, look at it as a competent comedy, but if you did want to look closer you could certainly note how Mel and Nancy’s relationship is defined more by actions than exposition. You could look at Paul and Tony (Jenkins and Brolin) and note their introduction and how they are dealt with for who they are, not what they are.

If there are storytelling cliches to be found they are largely present in both Mel’s biological and adoptive parents and most of the final act comedy derives from their actions, but it all fits not only the story, but these characters, which makes it all the funnier. I, for one, would love to see some kind of follow-up centered on Richard and Mary and where their lives are now after their escape to Mexico.

Finally, before handing it over to you, I wanted to just point out the following picture as a little bit of trivia. The young girl in the middle is Beth Ostrosky playing Jane. It was Ostrosky’s first film role and she hasn’t had many since. She is now a model and married to Howard Stern.

Beth Ostrosky in Flirting with Disaster
Beth Ostrosky (center) in Flirting with Disaster
Photo: Miramax


The rules are simple and, if necessary, will update as we go along.

  1. No topic is off limits as long as it pertains to the movie of the week or comes as a natural progression of the conversation.
  2. Keep your comments to a reasonable length. I know the urge to write a lot at once is there, but try to rein it in and get out one thought at a time. That way the conversation will move more fluidly and make sure none of your thoughts are overlooked.
  3. NO BULLYING: This is important, while you are free to disagree, do so in a mature manner. Hopefully I won’t have to explain that any further.
  4. Suggestions for future Movie Club titles must be emailed to Comments on actual Movie Club articles pertaining to future discussions and not the film being discussed will be deleted to make sure we remain on topic.


Based on last week’s poll, the December 10, 2012 Movie Club selection is Erik Skjoldbjaerg’s Insomnia (1971), which I have to assume is because everyone wanted to see the film that inspired Christopher Nolan’s remake and hopefully you’ll all be prepared to discuss it on the 10th.

Use the following poll to vote for the December 17, 2012 Movie Club selection and to suggest films for future entries direct all your emails to

Next week’s film will be Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. For more information and an updated schedule, visit the Movie Club homepage.

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