Thursday, March 31, 2016

David O. Russell | Flirting with Disaster

american gothic
by Douglas Messerli

David O. Russell (writer and director) Flirting with Disaster / 1996

In nearly all of the films of David O. Russell American family life is presented as a monstrous, nearly unendurable force which accounts for all the neuroses and other mental problems against which the younger generation are struggling.

This is particularly evident in his 1996 film, Flirting with Disaster, wherein the young couple, Mel and Nancy Coplin (Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette), blessed with a new-born, are suddenly faced with a series new crises. Not only have they been unable to name their new baby several weeks after his birth, but Mel has become distracted by a personal lack of identity which has further led to his disinterest in sexual contact with his wife. Mel was adopted, raised by a Jewish couple, Pearl and Ed (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal), both neurotics—Pearl is a pushy, selfish woman who, unable to listen to anyone else, miscomprehends any statements that reach her; Ed is a man who believes in various unverified statements passed-on by his friends—and, accordingly, Mel has become increasingly interested in finding and meeting his birth parents.  
       In the very first scene of the movie he visits a would-be psychiatrist, Tina Kalb (Téa Leoni), who is actually still a graduate student who, through internet connections, claims to have discovered Mel’s true parents, and wants to film his meeting with them for her dissertation. So off go the Coplins with baby and Kalb in tow to San Diego where they will encounter Valerie Swaney (Celia Weston), Mel’s birth mother.
      She too is a kind a monster, a political conservative (a drawing of Ronald Reagan graces her living room wall) and collector of kitschy glass objects who speaks in a heavily Southern accent about her (and apparently Mel’s) Confederate forbearers. Before Kalb discovers she has made an error in identifying this woman as Mel’s mother, Mel has already crashed into (don’t ask how!) Swaney’s glass-filled cabinet, destroying her beloved art objects, and has further miffed his increasingly irritable wife.
       Remaking contact with the adoption agency, Kalb now suggests that she has now found Mel’s birth father, living near Battle Creek, Michigan. The truck-driving Fritz Boudreau is a violent man who, upon meeting the travelers, first attempts to run them off his property before attempting to take them on a ride in his semi-trailer. When he offers to show Mel how to drive, Nancy becomes determined to take their baby out of danger, refusing to join him on the trip. Admitting that he works as an entomologist, Mel soon discovers that Boudreau is not his father, only the man who took him to the adoption agency. Only a few moments later, Mel crashes the truck into a small-town post office (don’t ask how!).
      Under arrest, they are met by two agents of  the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Dept. Paul (Richard Jenkins) and Tony (Josh Brolin), the latter of whom attended high school with Nancy. Tony, pleased to meet up again with his long-ago school friend and even more delighted by her baby—since he, married to Paul, has long wanted a baby of his own—the Coplin’s get off with only a warning, and before you can say “Schlichting,” the name, evidently of Mel’s real birth parents, they are off to Antelope Valley, New Mexico, with the gay officers joining them for a long-needed vacation. By this time Nancy has warmed up to the friendly and baby-hungry Tony, and Mel has almost had a sexual fling with Kalb.
      Richard and Mary Schlichting (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin), although friendly and obviously open-hearted, live in a large, rural, all-American house; yet they turn out to be even more monstrous that all the others Nancy and Mel have met. By the time they’ve finished dinner, his “parents” have admitted to having given up Mel because of their imprisonment for running a LSD lab in San Francisco, and their younger son, Lonnie (Glenn Fitzgerald) has served up a plate of  LSD-laced quail to the elder of the agents (don’t ask how!). Horrified by the goings-on, Mel retreats to his bedroom where he discovers his wife being licked under her arm by Tony!
     When in the midst of his hallucinations, Paul sobers up just enough to announce that he is an AFT administration detective, Lonnie hits him over the head with a frying pan, as the trio, scooping up their drug paraphernalia rush off to Mexico to escape imprisonment.
       As in all such absurd farces, which Flirting with Disaster is, the ending is even more outrageous, as Mel’s nervous adoptive parents arrive in a rental car that looks just like Mel’s—the car in which the Schlichtlings are planning to make their escape. When the Coplin elders get cold feet about confronting their son and daughter-in-law in his birth parent’s beautiful, seemingly normal home, they attempt to flee, inevitably in the wrong vehicle. They crash, predictably, into the other car (don’t ask how!) and, as the police arrive, Mel’s parents are arrested for a trunk loaded with drugs!
       Don’t worry: all ends well! Mel and Nancy find a name for their son, Garcia (as in the singer Jerry Garcia), and patch up their relationship; Mel is only too happy to embrace the parents who raised him; and Paul, having survived his out-of-body experiences, is a changed man, ready to settle down to fatherhood with Tony. The last scene reveals the Schlictlings safely ensconced in Mexico, blissfully drugged out and having joyful sex, upon which Lonnie intrudes in his search for pot; the couple, hardly missing a beat, insist he “get his own.
      Despite its total cartoon-like reality, Russell’s work is often genuinely funny—even if the film’s underlying vision of family life is definitely American gothic.

Los Angeles, March 30, 2016