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Acid Indigestion

David & Ben
Barry Wetcher

Roadside Companions: David Patrick Kelly (left) gets up close and personal with hapless Ben Stiller in "Flirting With Disaster."

Director David O. Russell flirts with disaster

By Richard von Busack

The ace comedy Flirting With Disaster lives up to its grandiose title. The film is built with the intricacy of a vintage screwball comedy and told in an easy, dry, sexy tone that contrasts with its velocity. Director David O. Russell, who made Spanking the Monkey, shows us some truly funny, polymorphously perverse situations, but he doesn't ram them home; when the improbabilities mount, you buy them, simply because no one in the cast has objected to them so far.

In classic comedy style, lead Ben Stiller pursues a foolish goal with the seriousness of a dreamquest. Stiller's character, Mel Coplin, is adopted, and even though both of his adopted parents are all too alive (especially his hectoring mom, played by Mary Tyler Moore), he feels there's something missing.

Now, as a new father, he's shifted his anxiety about the blessed event into a fixed idea that he must find his birth parents before he can name his child. Mel's wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), agrees to go on the pilgrimage, as does a neurotic, newly divorced, attractive adoption counselor named Tina (Téa Leoni), who wants to preserve the meeting between birth mom and birth son on 8mm video. Temptation, misdirection and mistaken identity dog the travelers, who end up not only in Southern California but also in Michigan and New Mexico. Before the trek is over, they are bedeviled by such curve balls of fate as an LSD laboratory, awful bed and breakfasts, and the misbehavior of several white Ford Tauruses.

Maybe it's my own experiences with the big "L" that make me think that Stiller has Jack Benny's aura floating around him. He knows how to turn on Benny's polite self-absorption, finickiness and gentle abrasiveness. Some of these second-generation comics know their roots; Stiller, as the son of the button-down comedy team of Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara, must have grown up knowing that the funniest actors aren't those who radiate an aura of lovability or a sense of themselves as the most hilarious person on the planet. Stiller strikes up some sharp duets with Arquette's first-rate second-banana. The part of the neglected wife could have been a stiff's role, but Arquette keeps the character a little feral, and her slanted eyebrows and fetchingly imperfect teeth make her look a bit diabolical, even when she's tending the baby. As Mel's this-time-for-sure birth mom, Lily Tomlin is an ex-old lady of a Hell's Angel turned gracious hippie-liberal hostess. After a few glasses of wine, she reverts, bringing a tattooed thigh up for inadvertent display.

Younger comics embrace older ones in this family-reunion movie in a sort of intergenerational summit meeting, and as close as Flirting With Disaster comes to a message is its suggestion that the new bunch possibly won't be any more responsible than their elders of the 1960s. Then again, Russell has a mature enough sensibility that he avoids judging the mixed-up crowd, just as he avoids the obvious jokes about babies or hippies or elders. The sophomore picture is what separates the lucky first-timers from the filmmakers whose work is going to be worth watching in the future. Russell's hilarious odyssey suggests that there's more to come.

Flirting With Disaster (R; 100 min.), written and directed by David O. Russell, photographed by Eric Edwards, and starring Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette.

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From the April 4-10, 1996 issue of Metro

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