Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

The Instant Movie Club: Flirting With Disaster

Every week, your friends at Culture Blues get together to watch a movie from their Netflix Instant queue. Then, they answer a series of discussion questions while eating some specially prepared quail. This is The Instant Movie Club.

This week we’re watching Flirting With Disaster. In honor of David O. Russell's second Best Director nomination in 3 years, we'll be discussing his sophomore effort featuring Ben Stiller on a quest to meet his biological parents.

Next week:  The Raven. John Cusack stars as Edgar Allan Poe, a somewhat notable author assisting the Baltimore police in tracking a killer inspired by his short stories.

One big happy family.

How thematically similar is Flirting With Disaster to Silver Linings Playbook and, if they are, which film does a better job presenting those themes?

Jeff Hart:  With Russell’s most successful films prior to Silver Linings being The Fighter (meh) and Three Kings (awesome), I think it’s easy to forget just how steeped his filmography is with familial neuroses (all his other movies). Hell, The Fighter is as much about a dysfunctional family (those sisters!) as it is about boxing. Psychologically damaged children butting heads with their screeching parents, adopted or otherwise, all shot with jittery handhelds, seems to be a Russell trademark. Russell seems very interested in the damage we inherit from our parents; that’s a big thing in Flirting With Disaster, but a secondary theme in Silver Linings, which casts a much more serious eye on mental illness. Both films are also united by Russell’s love of farce – the energetic screwballing works great in Flirting, but sinks the second half of Silver Linings.

Jeremiah White:  Yeah, Flirting doesn’t suffer from any of the uneven tone that drags down Silver Linings. This is a screwball comedy right from the moment Stiller fails to tell his frisky wife about the adoption agency employee waiting in the living room. It also never settles into anything as rote and tiresome as the rom-com beats that Silver Linings falls back on during its third act. Silver Linings is more focused on the family unit coming together and triumphing against the outside world, where Flirting is about accepting the family that you have, biological or otherwise. In those terms, I simply find Flirting more palatable, but it’s also telling that Stiller’s family is the one I would rather see band together against imposing odds. Can you imagine that crew at the dance-off?

Look at the babyface on Josh Brolin! Does Flirting From Disaster feel dated and/or suffer from an overabundance of 90s-ness?

Jeff Hart:  Ah, the swinging 90s! I guess any movie that involves a phone card is going to seem a little dated. Flirting generally holds up well for one of these late-90s indies. I love that era, but some of the referential or ‘edgy’ stuff is pretty unwatchable at this point – I can’t even make it through Mallrats anymore. The timeless (well, holds-up-ness) quality, despite being hurt by Stiller’s waistline, is helped by strong, relatable characters and a comedy of errors that would’ve done Shakespeare proud. Also, this marks the beginning of The Golden Age of Ben Stiller 1996-2001. Seriously. He was so good then.

Jeremiah White:  No kidding. In 96 alone he starred in this and directed The Cable Guy. There are two things that Flirting can thank for its impressive “holds-up-ness.” The first is that some of the bits are pretty close to timeless. As long as there are Bed & Breakfasts in the world, there will be people like me who smile and nod in agreement as Russell nails everything that makes them so undesirable. The second thing is that it doesn’t call too much attention to the more referential or edgy material. I’d be somewhat surprised to see two non-stereotypical gay ATF agents in a 2013 comedy, much less one from 1996. Yet, the revelation that Brolin and Richard Jenkins are lovers is handled subtly. Flirting isn’t edgy just for edginess’ sake.

Flirting With Disaster may be David O. Russell’s most overtly comedic film, and it led Janet Maslin to claim that Russell “could spin inspired zaniness out of a trip to the grocery store.” 17 years later, how would you rate Russell’s comedic abilities?

Jeremiah White:  Maslin may consider the premise for Flirting “almost ordinary,” but it yanks the characters out of their everyday lives, and benefits immeasurably from an extremely strong comedy ensemble. So it might be a stretch to say he could make daily chores hilarious. In 2013, Russell’s comedy seems more suited to the extraordinary than the ordinary. The humor in Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees works better than in his more grounded formalist exercises like Silver Linings and the exceedingly straight-faced The Fighter. Flirting, Three Kings and Huckabees all boil down to an existential journey for one or more characters, a lesser thread in Silver Linings and one absent from The Fighter, the two movies most likely to include a trip to the grocery store. Russell is clearly more comfortable spinning zaniness out of the profound than the mundane.

Jeff Hart:  Agreed. If Russell is making a movie about grocery shopping, you can bet there's going to be a nervous breakdown in the cereal aisle caused by the realization that Captain Crunch vaguely resembles the lead's father and that the crunch berries are a metaphor for slave cargo. I don't really think of him as a comedic director, but then maybe I've listened to him calling Lily Tomlin a cunt one too many times. I think you nailed where his humor comes from. Definitely not a zany place.

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