David O. Russell’s “Flirting With Disaster” (1996)

Notable Festivals: Cannes

The modest success of his 1994 feature debut, SPANKING THE MONKEY, placed director David O. Russell on the radar of Hollywood production companies as a talent to watch.  One such company was Miramax, who at the time was run by a sibling pair of awards-bait moguls, Bob and Harvey Weinstein.  They saw Russell’s potential right away, and quickly brought him and his producing partner Dean Silvers into their fold as Russell began writing his follow-up– a road trip comedy called FLIRTING WITH DISASTER.  Released in 1996, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER finds Russell working with established Hollywood stars for the first time in his career, while solidifying his own profile as an emerging filmmaker with a twisted take on family and identity.


FLIRTING WITH DISASTER stars Ben Stiller as Mel Coplin, a New York entomologist and a new father who is having trouble naming his newborn son because, as an adopted child himself, he has no grasp on his true lineage.  Charged up with a feverish neuroticism and an ample supply of sexual hang-ups, Mel goes over his wife Nancy’s head (the flirtatious and frustrated Patricia Arquette) to enlist the help of Tea Leoni’s Tina Kalb, a clinical and buttoned-up adoption agent who’s a little frayed around the edges.  She’s found his birth parents (or so she claims), and volunteers to join Mel and Nancy on a dizzying road trip that will take them from Manhattan, to San Diego, then Michigan, and finally to New Mexico as they desperately follow what little strands of information they have left when Tina’s records prove entirely unreliable.  Along the way, the trio is comically besieged by temptation, doubt, and distraction in the form of their ever-growing entourage.  Towards this end, Russell fills his supporting cast with an inspired mix of established talent and on-the-rise upcomers who have since established themselves in their own right.  George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore play Mel’s uptight and fiery adopted parents, a pair of stuffy upper crust types.  Mel’s real parents, however, couldn’t be more different– Allan Alda and Lily Tomlin play the characters of Richard and Mary Schlichting as warm and inviting art hippies with an almost-debilitating passion for acid.  There’s also a fresh-faced Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins (who looked exactly the same in 1996 as he does now), playing a literal odd couple who are partners in both work and life.  Jenkins’ ATF agent Paul Harmon is an irritable grouch, contrasting starkly with his husband Tory Kent, characterized by Brolin as a laid back and charismatic presence that just so happens to have an intimate history with Mel’s wife that drives Mel wild with seething envy.

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER’s cinematography, executed by Director of Photography Eric Alan Edwards, marks a technical step up from Russell’s rough-edged indie debut.  Again shooting on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Russell imbues FLIRTING WITH DISASTER with a polished naturalism, leaning into the visual grammar and stylistic techniques of the road picture and romantic comedy genres even as he seeks to subvert them.  In this respect, the film’s visual style resembles the aesthetic of Billy Wilder, utilizing classical camera movement and covering dialogue with a preference for two-shots over closeups.  Just as frequently, however, Russell injects a Martin Scorsese-style rock-and-roll energy with handheld camerawork or the aggressive breaking of the 4th wall during the film’s impressionistic opening sequence.  Composer Stephen Endelman provides a spare, rock-influenced score that Russell complements with a variety of jazz, punk, and country cues that further reflect the various locales in which the winding story finds itself.

SPANKING THE MONKEY introduced several of the core thematic conceits that shape Russell’s artistic character, and FLIRTING WITH DISASTER expands upon those in interesting fashion.  The repressed, Oedipal nature of sex that he so boldly explored in his previous film continues to fuel the comic engine here, subjecting Stiller’s character to an onslaught of sexually humiliating scenarios– not the least of which finds his wife trying to blow him in front of his infant son (and while his adoption agent awkwardly waits in the other room).  He hates his sex life being discussed with others; indeed, he seems profoundly intimidated by the entire enterprise.  Russell ties his hang-ups about sex into his hang-ups with family, charging Mel’s story with a peculiar family dynamic: alienation.  He’s alienated from his adopted parents because he is inherently not of their blood, he’s alienated from his birth parents because he has no basis of connection to them other than blood, he’s alienated from his wife because she can’t relate to his plight, and he’s alienated from his son because he doesn’t even know what to name him.  A major subplot revolves around Mel being physically unable to name his newborn, simply because he himself does not know where he comes from or who he really is.  FLIRTING WITH DISASTER hammers home the idea of how identity is fundamentally shaped by family– before Mel can become an anchor for his son and wife, he needs to find his own rock.

Los Angeles Premiere of Flirting With Disaster

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER also evidences the emergence of another, less-enviable directorial signature- a propensity for quarreling with his collaborators.  His blow-ups with George Clooney in THREE KINGS (1999) and Tomlin on I HEART HUCKABEES (2004) are the stuff of Hollywood legend, but even as early as his second feature film, there were reports of Russell continously clashing with Stiller over a variety of creative matters (1).  Despite its rocky shoot, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER premiered to an even warmer reception than Russell’s debut.  The film screened out of competition at Cannes, and critics were quick to include it in their yearly “best-of” lists.  Twenty years later, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER is remembered as a classic 90’s comedy that boosted its ambitious director’s rising profile.  In taking the guise of a road comedy, FLIRTING DISASTER complements SPANKING THE MONKEY as the second in a pair of coming-of-age pictures about family and identity.  These two films could only have been made by Russell at the beginning of his film career; indeed, his filmography from here on out would bear a very different resemblance.  At nearly 40 years old, Russell was breaking out at a relatively older age than the bulk of his counterparts, a product of arrested development not unlike Stiller’s protagonist.  He still had some growing up to do, and he still had so much more road to travel.  

FLIRTING WITH DISASTER is currently available on standard definition DVD via Miramax.


Written by: David O. Russell

Produced by: Dean Silvers

Executive Produced by: Bob & Harvey Weinstein

Director of Photography: Eric Alan Edwards

Production Designer: Kevin Thompson

Edited by: Christopher Tellefsen

Music by: Stephen Endelman


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