Flirting With Disaster

on March 22, 1996 by Christine James
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Since Fox TV's award-winning "The Ben Stiller Show" was cancelled several years back, Ben Stiller has been searching for the proper vehicle for his talents. As a comic actor, Stiller has always shone, even in duds like "Reality Bites," "Heavyweights" and "If Lucy Fell," but he never seems able to select a project well-written enough to showcase his abilities. Unfortunately, "Flirting With Disaster" is no exception to Stiller's disappointing cinematic track record.
   The film opens with great promise. Mel Coplin (Stiller) asserts in a monologue, illustrated by a clever and humorous montage, that his insecurities and shaky identity are due to his having been adopted. We discover that he is relaying this information to Tina ("Bad Boys'" Tea Leoni), a psychologist with his adoption agency, who announces she's tracked down his real parents. Mel is thrilled, and a trip is arranged. But there's a hitch: Mel, his wife Nancy ("Beyond Rangoon's" Patricia Arquette), and their five-month-old son who's still unnamed due to Mel's identity hangup will be accompanied by Tina, who wants to videotape the event for her research on the psychological effects of such reunions. Meanwhile, Mel's overbearing but loving adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal) feel threatened by Mel's desire to meet his biologic progenitors. Moore is hilarious as the shrill matriarch, coolly picking apart everyone and everything before falling to pieces in her own distress. Segal is a great foil as Moore's beleaguered but equally obnoxious husband.
   At this point, we're rooting for the young couple and their mission. Where the movie falls apart is when Mel is so easily lured away from his sweet, passionate wife by the gorgeous but neurotic Tina, undermining our concern for the protagonist's best interests. At about the same time, the film slips into the frustrating anything-that-can-go-wrong-will genre. Some funny moments await, but the comedy isn't as uniformly sharp and fun as in the movie's first 20 minutes, and there's no longer a conceivable outcome to cheer, making for a tedious and apathetic wait for the end. Starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Tea Leoni. Directed and written by David O. Russell. Produced by Dean Silvers. A Miramax release. Comedy. Rated R for language, sexuality and a comic drug scene. Running time: 88 min
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