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

Vote for the December 17, 2012 Movie Club selection

  • Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders) (38 Votes)
  • Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson) (18 Votes)
  • Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville) (15 Votes)
  • Le Corbeau (Henri-Georges Clouzot) (12 Votes)
  • Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic) (7 Votes)

Total Voters: 90

Loading ... Loading ...

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

  • Baca

    I would say the most interesting aspect of this movie is watching it in context with the rest of O' Russel's career. I think it definitely seeds one of the strongest aspects of his later work in how each one of the characters is distinct; even the ones that don't play a large role in the overall story. I think this allows him to take moments that in lesser hands could be considered by viewers as insignificant and transform them into interesting and entertaining scenes.

    • Brad Brevet

      Yup, he shows his characters respect in not merely painting them as one note, but gives them depth beyond a simple distinction. In lesser hands I think both Brolin and Jenkins would have been looked at as simply being gay, but just a few lines bring so much more to their characters to the point they can be both funny and relatable while not betraying the qualities that make them different and unique.

      • Susan

        It's funny you say that, because I found Flirting to be a sign of that same thing, but in a bad manor. The one element I've not liked about some of his work is how one-note I've found many of the characters, or least how simplistic they are until forced into a corner. While I find his movie's entertaining, I find the quirky elements, seen in Flirting all the way up to Silver Linings Playbook, a tad disengenous.

  • Jack

    I wonder if David O Russell must have had a terrible childhood? I read something that said he wanted to do Playbook because his son has bipolar disorder, so just gets me wondering.

    • IngmarTheBergman

      Possibly. Every character in Russel's films that I've seen have had depressing childhoods. Great point, wish I'd thought of that.

  • IngmarTheBergman

    Flirting With Disaster : 60%

    Flirting With Disaster is not a particularly good film. However, one thing that it definitely has going for itself is a brilliant cast. To start off with some very modern actors such as Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin. As well, we have some great older comedic actors such as Alan Alda, Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal. However, each and every one of those actors (with the exception of Ben Stiller) give performances that use very little of their full potential.
    David O. Russell does an average job ripping off several successful comedies over the years. He creates jokes that merit the occasional smirk – but never a laugh. I tried to ask myself, what’s unique about Flirting With Disaster. The answer is nothing. It does what has been done several times before, in an average way.
    Finally, I found what Russel did well is his manner in which portrayed his characters. Every individual in the film is quite different and somewhat cartoonish, yet they still are demonstrated in a classic believable manner. In the hand of an alternative director, Flirting With Disaster could have been a lot worse. Instead of being terrible, it’s mediocre.

    • Brad Brevet

      So great that within the first few comments we are all pointing out his attention to character, no matter what we ultimately thought of the film.

  • Timothy

    I did not like this film. It was a competent comedy, but it never held for me any "laugh-out-loud" moments. I agree with you Brad, that the film isn't bad, but it isn't a great discussion piece, which means a smaller entry on my part. I'll start with it's place in O'Russell's filmography. I haven't seen many of his films, but from bits and pieces that I have read, he seems to have two periods, the early comedies, and from 2010 onwards, the character driven dramatic comedies.

    What i really find quite interesting, as another user pointed out, is O' Russell's focus on character, and finding comedy in the situation and characters more than just gags. Indeed, my favourite part of the film was Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal as Mel's overprotective parents. Segal's constant way of finding the faults in every place that Mel mentioned was a particular highlight of the film, at least for me.

    Overall, I didn't love the film. I found it had funny moments, but it never coalesced into an overall comedic film. That being said, it is still entertaining, and an easy way to spend an afternoon.

    (On a side note, isn't Insomnia from 1997?)

    • Criterion10

      I completely agree with you in that there were never any "laugh-out-loud" moments for me. That being said, I did still enjoy the film, for what it was, which was a competent comedy, though nothing so special. As a side note, I actually was watching the film with a family member who has seen it before and quite likes it. They were laughing constantly, yet that rarely happened with me.

      • Timothy

        I was once in a similar situation, where my family member was laughing but I wasn't. It was very awkward, to say the least.

        • Criterion10

          Yeah, comedy does seem to have that awkward effect when you aren't laughing but someone nearby you is. With this film in particular, for me at least, it's not that the scenes were funny, but rather they weren't laugh out loud funny. The film had more of a light chuckle effect on me.

          • Timothy

            I agree, it was more of a smile than a chuckle for me, but at least the film was able to do that. That at least makes it enjoyable.

  • Gautam

    "I need to be a little more careful about what films I add to the voting for future Movie Club selections."

    I have been saying this for a while now. Films selected for movie club, even nominated for it, must be conversation starter which clearly Flirting With Disaster isn't.

    Anyways, though done well, Flirting With Disaster is a conventional comedy with some of the Russel film-making traits. I think "I Heart Huckabess" inspite of its weirdness was more daring work from him. Infact it would have been more fun discussing and figuring out the craziness of its characters.

    • Randall P McMurphy

      I have had no problem with the selections and in my opinion this has been the best film of the movie club up to now, it had almost everything I ask for in a movie. As for not being a conversation started I see many things about it people could talk about like:

      -Is it okay for the two gay characters to have a baby? What do you think about that?
      -Do you think their relationships will improve after this adventure?
      -Who impregnated Tea Leoni's character?

  • Criterion10

    I just finished watching this one, so my thoughts serve as an immediate reaction.

    Overall, Flirting with Disaster is by no mean a bad film. In fact, I was thoroughly entertained, much more than I expected to be. The film is very fun and little else. It's competent, as another commenter described. Many scenes are silly, sometimes too over the top, and I can't say that I was ever bored.

    I will say that this type of film has been done to death before, meaning a film centering on a dysfunctional family and what occurs to them. A good comparison would be Little Miss Sunshine, although I would say that LMS is a much better film. The characters are more diverse, realistic, and the film is rather poignant. I cared deeply about the characters in that film, and I was laughing aloud constantly.

    I never really got that out of Flirting with Disaster. As I said before, I was rather entertained, but there was nothing terribly special in what I was watching. And I know that a lot of people are praising Russell's talent for depicting characters, but at the same time there wasn't anything special about them. The central love triangle was uninspired, as was the neurotic role of Stiller's adopted parents, and Stiller's biological family was a little too over the top for me. The characters I was most interested in were Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins. They were the highlight of the film for me.

    This is only the second Russell film that I have seen (The Figher being the other one). Both are solid flicks, but certainly not great. I will hopefully be catching Silver Livings Playbook shortly, and I'm really interested to check out Three Kings. But, out of the two films I have seen by him, I'm a little surprised by the praise he receives. He's definitely got some talent, I just don't think he's a particularly good director. Maybe that will change as I further explore his work...

    And Brad, I would say that your choices for the Movie Club polls have been rather good so far. I like that you have been including many older and foreign films. I'm particularly excited about McCabe and Mrs. Miller as it will encourage me to further explore the films of Robert Altman, in which I have only seen 3 Women by him.

    • Timothy

      I would agree. I haven't seen Silver Linings Playbook yet, but I find O Russell to be a slightly generic filmmaker. From the few films of his that I've seen, I find that he certainly has his own take on the material, but he uses too many cliches, and sometimes it can be detrimental to eh film.

      • Criterion10

        Exactly. And I would say that's one of the biggest flaws of The Fighter. Now, that film has much more going for it, but what it all does come down to in the end is your standard sports flick. It's still not a bad film, in fact a very good one, but not great.

        • IngmarTheBergman

          I agree with you. O. Russel shows what people will want to see and what will make him considered talented.

  • Susan

    I'm curious if you've ever read 'Rebels on the Backlot' Brad? It's a fantastic book from about ten years ago following the careers of a variety of young directors, with David O. Russell, Tarantino and Fincher amongst them. It details how they all rose to prominence and allowed to make certain films one would not expect would be allowed in a Hollywood system. The chunks of Russell and his making of 'Three Kings' is especially interesting.

    • Baca

      That book is so great.

  • Susan

    Might I also say, can't wait for next week. McCabe and Mrs Miller is a favorite of mine.

  • AS

    All I have to say is.... baba booey.

  • Criterion10

    Brad, hope it's okay if I point it out here that the new Movie Club poll hasn't been updated on the main page (it's still the one from last week).

  • Randall P McMurphy

    I liked the movie a lot, I could identify with Ben Stiller's character a lot I just didn't understand why he chose Patricia Arquette over Tea Leoni, but maybe thats just me.

    I have yet to see Spanking the Monkey and I only saw the first half of I Heart Huckabees, but I did like The Fighter and I enjoyed Three Kings. This was definitely the funniest film of his I've seen, and there wasn't one character I didn't like (except for maybe Ben Stiller's character's weird brother, what an asshole).

    By the way, is it me or does Patricia Arquette look like Anna Paquin in the poster?

  • tombeet

    It is a witty, and overall consistent film. Judge from today, some of the jokes might seem normal (especially after the success of many adult comedy films in recent years), but there still many great lines in the film and I found it quite entertaining. All the characters was flesh out, the story was strong enough to hold up with many twist and turns. Tea Leoni was my favorite character.

  • Jack

    Very few directors use cliche as well as O Russell. The Fighter is one big fighting sports familiar cliche, but somehow he makes it so compelling and fresh. Silver Linings Playbook plays like a date movie, and you know how it'll turn out, but you just can't put you're finger on the twists as he wraps you up so wisely. Take out the insect in Spanking the monkey and you just have any other quirky family film.

    Strangely, I Heart Huckabees may be his only one that just does against all convention, maybe that's why it turned out to be his weakest film. Perhaps O Russell thrives on the Hollywood techniques. Looked at Nailed, never even finished.