WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
You tend to take away specific things from movies. Perhaps it's a particular action sequence, or an especially tender moment, or a shot that leaves you on the floor laughing. In the decidedly odd and often shrill Ben Stiller comedy Flirting with Disaster, it's the shot of Josh Brolin licking Patricia Arquette's armpit. And he's not just licking it, he's French-kissing that damn thing, jutting his whole jaw, his entire being, into the act. The scene embodies a lot of the tone of David O. Russell's madcap roadtrip movie: Flirting with Disaster trips along a wobbly path, right beyond the edge of ireverence, and in between its mostly shouted dialog, you'll find yourself falling for its sometimes-gross, sometimes crazy-funny charms.
You probably know Russell's name. He helmed the indy eye-opener Spanking the Monkey, as well as the George Clooney starrer Three Kings. Most recently, he's completed filming the existential-detective film I Heart Huckabee's. The man has a distinct thematic style, a tendency toward the absurd, a penchant for the darkness underneath. And he's got the kind of sense of humor that really tickles my funny bone. Flirting with Disaster offers many moments that punch you in the gut with their comic effectiveness, but the film has one central annoyance: The characters spend most of the film bickering, screaming, yelling, bellowing, screeching, shouting, and squealing. As a narrative device, the yell certainly has its place in filmed comedy, but Flirting with Disaster often comes across as one long, protracted argument. If you're into the Albert Brooks school of boiling-anger-as-comedy, as well as the Farrelly Brothers' tendency to cross the line, this film will definitely appeal.
There's no doubting that it's a funny film. I might even say it's hilarious, if your mood matches its bizarre tone. Mel Copland (Stiller), an adoptee, is in the midst of an early-adulthood crisis in which he's compelled to discover the identity of his birth parents. Confounding his shrill adopted parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal), he needs to search out his "true identity" so that he can bestow a name on his already-4-month-old son. Mel's sex-starved wife Nancy (Arquette) agrees to go along for the ride, but little does she know how increasingly exasperating Mel's search will become. When the New York adoption agency locates whom it believes to be Mel's mother, in sunny San Diego, the small family—along with dunderheaded but attractive agency counselor Tina Kalb (Tia Leoni)—is on its way west. But nothing turns out to be as easy as it's meant to be, and a domino-effect series of miscalculations and blunders takes the group back and forth across the country. Tempers flare and voices rise.
The cast of Flirting with Disaster deserves special mention. This is a large supporting assemblage of veteran actors, all of whom contribute some of the best, most offbeat and hilarious work we've seen from them. Segal and Moore, as Mel's adopted parents, are a remarkable team, Moore keening and abrasive, and Segal the all-suffering shmoe. Mel's birth parents, once he finds them, turn out to be LSD hippies Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, who expertly convey the sense of all hell breaking loose. Two gay Federal officers (Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins) are also along for the ride, for crazy reasons.
Flirting with Disaster, in a way, could be seen as a precursor to the current wave of gross-out comedies, typified by the American Pie films or the movies of the Farrelly Brothers. Russell has taken an age-old movie device, the road trip, and twisted its nipples. The humor is black and ribald. It's played for shock value, and it's loving every minute of it. It plays a lot with anger and heated debate and shoutfests, but at its heart it's joyful and fun. You can feel these characters' frustrations as each debacle unfolds, and you can even empathize with their anger. This movie is the equivalent of laughter as release, just after you've experienced something painful or uncomfortable.
WHAT'S NEW TO THIS DVD?
I'm happy to report that this DVD reinstates some footage that was lost on previous video incarnations—namely, the previously released laserdisc and DVD versions. Those incarnations inexplicably cut two scenes from the six-scene end-credits montage, possibly for reasons of political correctness (which is ironic, since the film wallows in political incorrectness). The first scene shows Leoni pregnant and smoking a cigarette, and the second scene shows the gay male couple in bed with a baby. Perhaps this was an occasion of Buena Vista censorship, but regardless, the brief scenes have been reinstated.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Buena Vista presents Flirting with Disaster in a surprisingly fine anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is so strong that the film seems as if it could have been made last year. Colors are vibrant, if a little too pink. In bright scenes, such as views of the sky, I noticed an ever-present gauze of grain, but it wasn't terribly distracting. I also observed moderate edge halos.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 audio presentation is front-heavy to the extreme. In fact, it sounds more like a mono presentation. Stereo separation across the front is minimal. Fortunately, dialog is rich and clear, with no distortion—a miracle, considering all the shrill yelling. The soundtrack livens up when the score seeps in, sounding strong and full, but, again, front-heavy.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
For a so-called Miramax Collector's Series disc, this DVD is surprisingly bereft of meaningful supplements. I would have loved to hear a David O. Russell commentary or seen some retrospective material, but we get only about 20 minutes worth of ho-hum stuff.
The 5-minute Original Featurette is a typical EPK production. It contains brief talking-head interviews with director David O. Russell, Arquette and Stiller (interviewed together), Leoni, Segal and Moore (interviewed together), Alda and Tomlin (also interviewed together), and Jenkins, all in service of marketing.
You get three Deleted Scenes, adding up to about 5 minutes. The first, titled Hotel, is a flirty conversation between Stiller and Leoni. The second, Warm Water Method, is a quite-funny oral-sex scene between Stiller and Arquette. And the third, Jail, is a jail-cell confrontation between an inmate and Segal.
The final supplement is a series of Mistakes, or outtakes, made in filming. You get two separate reels, a 7-minute collection of Mistakes from the Film and a 2-minute assemblage of Mistakes from the Deleted Scenes.
There's an Easter Egg in the Special Features section, an odd compilation of shots that show Arquette holding up strange hand-written notes.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Flirting with Disaster is a very funny film with perhaps a tad too much shrill shouting. Nevertheless, I recommend seeing it, despite this Miramax Collector's Series DVD's wimpy extras. On the good side, image quality it quite good.