Flirting with Disaster 1.0 stars

This is perhaps, just barely, recognizable as the work of the Spanking the Monkey man, if not for its gerundial title, then for its morbid fascination with family dysfunction. David O. Russell's move into or toward the commercial mainstream, though, has meant an accelerated, assembly-line manufacture of jokes, and damn quality control. Right along with the intermittently funny, we get the merely naughty (the boner in the boxer shorts), merely nervy (the senior citizen's push-up bra), merely kinky (the armpit fetish), merely what-have-you. Certainly the premise -- the search of an adopted son, now with a wife and four-months-old, as-yet-unnamed son of his own, for his biological parents -- affords plenty of latitude to explore different types of familial embarrassment, especially because the adoption agency sends him twice to an incorrect address. (Plenty of latitude there, too, to explore different types of geography: sunny San Diego, snowy Michigan, spooky New Mexico.) And the cast is surprising, if not consistently and equally amusing, in its breadth and diversity: Ben Stiller (a little too sitcommy or comic-sketchy), Patricia Arquette (natural as can be, under the circumstances), Téa Leoni, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, and lessers. But the fresh material -- blood-drawing jabs at the hallowed institution of B&B's -- is overpowered by the stale: the caricatured Jewish couple, the pop-song montage, the bonking with a frying pan. The term "screwball comedy" will inevitably come to mind, prudently to be followed by a reminder that that's just a label, not a laurel. 1996.

Duncan Shepherd

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