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Leoni Online: The Articles — Movieline Magazine 1997

By now it should be obvious that, whether you’re talking about Indies (The Pallbearer, The Last Supper, Curdled) or studio products (The Associate, High School High, Dear God), making a comedy is a hard as making a diamond by squeezing a piece of coal Superman-style. comedies require a sense of rhythm, timing, subtlety and genuine wit, which have been in especially scant supply ever since Woody Allen go tired of Mia Farrow. Your know we’re in trouble when everybody goes around insisting that the best comedy is done on TV – if sitcoms like “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” are the best we’ve got, I’d rather have earwigs eat my brain. I usually don’t love comedies because there are few comedies to love. But last year, I found one: David O. Russell’s Flirting With Disaster. Russell emerged into the Indies limelight in 1994 with Spanking the Monkey, a stupendously unfunny Sundance Film Fest winner about a horny, brooding college kid who’s forced to baby-sit his mom after she breaks a leg, and who ends up getting drunk and boffing her. After that, I couldn’t have been more surprised when Flirting turned out to be the sharpest, most assure, most inspired American comedy of the last four years. Of course, Flirting did not draw masses to the box office last year, despite critical hosannas. This is often how you can tell a film has an original identity – it’s an utter enigma to marketing people, and therefore never finds its audience. This story has a classic type of high-concept comedy premise: Mel, an adopted, nervous New York entomologist (Ben Stiller), upon having a son of his own, is suddenly fraught with a desire to know who his biological parents are, and embarks on a cross-country journey to discover them. along for the sojourn are his kind but frustrated wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), their infant son, and a leggy, chain-smoking adoption-agency counselor, Tina (Téa Leoni). You know that the trip is going to go all pretzel-ish, and it does, but in unpredictable ways, including mistaken identities, sexual near-betrayals, serendipitously crossed paths, inadvertent LSD consumption, and the miserable, meddlesome joy of Jewish parents (played masterfully by ultra-goy Mary Tyler Moor with George Segal). What makes Flirting the all-you-can eat dessert bar is not the what so much as the how – the movie is a masterpiece of off-kilter rhythms, dead-perfect line readings and original reaction shots. (Russell also makes the best comedic use of off-screen space since Chuck Jones.) There’s never merely one thing happening in a scene; each character is the star of his or her own minimovie, and is often stunned to find they’re muddling through someone else’s. (Which is just another way of saying they’re completely real.) Watch Leoni and Stiller listen to the other character, especially Moore’s rip-snorting megamom (who is prone to displaying here cleavage to make a point about support bras), Josh Brolin’s bisexual cop (who hitches along for the last leg of the trip and just won’t shut up about sex), and Alan Alda’s unctuous post-hippie (who turns out to be Mel’s actual father and whose desert house is an acid factory). There are so many mercilessly, subtly funny moments it’s difficult to winnow the film down to favorites: Stiller’s offscreen impulse to politely reach for the baby on Brolin’s lap while Brolin is spouting off about foreskins in a restaurant, Moore (during the end credits) taking a break during sex with Segal to floss, and Leoni’s look of exhausted awe when Alda – while he’s wrestling with an LSD-loaded dinner guest – tells her that , sorry, it’s a non-smoking house. (“I guess it’s just one of those ex-felon pro-acid kind of non-smoking homes,” she moans later.) The crowning glory is Stiller walking in on Brolin as he tongues Arquette’s armpit – modern movies’ shiveriest moment of marital violation. Most comedies tell one joke at a time, and then pause like a crummy Catskills stand-up to wait for a laugh. Russell’s film hits the ground running and never looks back. Because it’s about characters and not gags, the movie never tells you when to laugh, although there’s opportunity by the truckload. In fact, Flirting With Disaster may be too fast and too stealthy to absorb in one viewing – hold on to it for a few nights and watch it twice. It’s worth the late fee.

— Michael Atkinson