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Movie Reviews : ‘Flirting With Disaster’ Flirts With Greatness

TIMES FILM CRITIC

“Flirting With Disaster” doesn’t just begin, it irrepressibly erupts, like champagne too impatient to stay in the glass. A beautifully balanced, frenetic comedy about searching for love in too many places, “Flirting” thrusts you into a sexy, giddy maelstrom of confusion, mischance and misadventure that gets funnier and funnier as it goes along.

Written and directed by David O. Russell, whose debut film was the completely different “Spanking the Monkey,” “Flirting” brings to mind venerable cliches like “inspired lunacy” that haven’t fit anything for years. A light-on-its-feet, catch-the-jokes-on-the-fly adventure, the opposite end of the spectrum from the lumbering “Birdcage,” this is the hardest kind of comedy to do well, but you wouldn’t know that from Russell’s casual ease with the material.

He also knows his way around actors, unexpectedly but adroitly combining youngsters Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tea Leoni with wise old heads Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, all of whom blend like this was meant to be.

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“Flirting’s” success also comes from how seamlessly it combines two quite different comic traditions into one harum-scarum whole, tying it all up with a clever title that encapsulates the anarchy of the proceedings.

One strand, the tightly wound Woody Allen neurotic on the loose, is concentrated in indecisive, uncertain entomologist Mel Coplin (Stiller). Married to the warm and loving Nancy (Arquette doing the best work of her career) and the father of a 4-month-old son, Mel should be glowing but instead he’s so stressed out he and his wife have been unable to decide on the baby’s name.

The adopted son of awesomely maladjusted New Yorkers (Moore and Segal), Mel feels his troubles would vanish if he could locate his birth parents. No problemo, says the Maidstone Adoption Agency, adding grandly that “the mystery of your unknown self is about to unfold.”

It’s not quite that simple.

First off, the agency saddles Mel and Nancy with elegant, about-to-be-divorced psychology graduate student Tina Kalb, assigned to videotape the reunion. Played by Leoni, much better used than she was in “Bad Boys,” Tina amusingly combines an ex-dancer’s body with the bottomless psychobabble of an earnest academic. As the senior Mrs. Coplin says, “This woman strikes me as very dangerous.”

Undeterred, not to say obsessed, Mel, Nancy and Tina head off on what becomes a genetic wild goose chase that has the trio hopscotching all over the country, meeting a cracked collection of eccentrics and throwing their lives into the most delicious confusion.

It’s during this manic journey that “Flirting’s” adroit juggling of multiple characters brings to mind a different strain of American comedy, the satiric screwball farces of the 1930s and ‘40s, especially those like “The Lady Eve” and “The Palm Beach Story,” which were written and directed by the master of the form, Preston Sturges.

Russell is no Sturges yet, but he does do a number of things remarkably well for a young director. He creates moments of physical comedy that are intrinsic to the story while being unexpected and wildly funny. And he is so gifted at moving his plot along at a breakneck pace that there’s never time to draw breath, let alone wonder what makes sense and what doesn’t.

All of this, as well as Russell’s facility for mocking such American institutions as bed & breakfasts and white Taurus rental cars, puts “Flirting With Disaster” into a much different category from the sluggish, more self-indulgent “Spanking the Monkey.”

In fact, this new film is such a deft juggling of so many balls it may turn out to be a one-of-a-kind performance, difficult to duplicate even by its creator. But that’s down the road, and for right now nothing should be allowed to dilute the pleasure this bustling new comedy is sure to create.

* MPAA rating: R, language, sexuality and a comic drug scene. Times guidelines: The sexual references are quite specific but always playful. The drug scene involves LSD.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

‘Flirting With Disaster’

Ben Stiller: Mel Coplin

Patricia Arquette: Nancy Coplin

Tea Leoni: Tina Kalb

Mary Tyler Moore: Mrs. Coplin

George Segal: Mr. Coplin

Alan Alda: Richard Schlicting

Lily Tomlin: Mary Schlicting

Richard Jenkins: Paul

Josh Brolin: Tony

Released by Miramax Films. Director David O. Russell. Producer Dean Silvers. Executive producers Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Screenplay David O. Russell. Cinematographer Eric Edwards. Editor Christopher Tellefsen. Costumes Ellen Lutter. Music Stephen Endelman. Production design Kevin Thompson. Art director Judy Rhee. Set decorators Ford Wheeler, Susan Block. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.


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