Long before David O. Russell would go on to be recognized for his award-winning dramedies, his sophomore effort Flirting with Disaster was released twenty years ago. The movie tells the story of Mel, a young man who’s just had a child and struggles with questions of identity because he never got to meet his real parents. Thankfully, a case worker has found out who they are, so Mel, his wife, their child and the case worker set out to find them. There’s a catch though: The case worker has found the wrong parents.
Much like the rest of O. Russell’s wok, Flirting with Disaster booms with energy from start to finish. Russell employs his ever-moving camera here, throwing in handheld shots that make the scenes come alive. But all this would be for naught if it wasn’t for the performances, and boy does this film have quite the cast: Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Téa Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Josh Brolin and Richard Jenkins. They all do a terrific, memorable job. Even those in small parts like Celia Weston and David Patrick Kelly leave a lasting impression. All thanks to the combination of terrific character writing and fantastic acting.
The movie is not only funny, but also surprisingly sweet. It’s not afraid to make things difficult for its characters but they’re all treated with love. The movie never feels as if it’s exploiting them in any way. The movie always ups the ante on the humor, delivering jokes that are more slapstick in nature and also ones that are outright bizarre, and completely hilarious. But there is even a little bit of thought in the movie; just like Mel we wonder: If we knew or didn’t know our real parents, how much does that shape us as people? At the same time, there are themes about fidelity, marriage and the legacy we leave for our children.
In terms of craftsmanship and storytelling, maybe Flirting with Disaster isn’t as well-polished as Russell’s later work. But it’s a very funny, energetic movie with great performances that you won’t regret watching. In fact, it may well be your next favorite movie. It’s one of the hidden gems of the 90s.
You can get Flirting with Disaster here.