Mel: “You got a lot of nerve. You come in here, you lick my wife’s armpit. You know… I’m going to have that image in my head for the rest of my life with your tongue in there.”
Yes, there’s a famous armpit licking scene in David O. Russell’s “Flirting with Disaster” (1996). It’s a madcap moment, but touching (pun intended) at the same time once you consider the motives. Nancy, since giving birth to their child, has felt neglected by her husband, and she’s just become reacquainted with a high school flame. He is now a gay police agent who wants to start his own family with another agent, and sees in her the beauty of motherhood. He wants to caress her underarm because he’s always found that the most attractive part of the human body. She’s wearing a shower cap. As he performs the extremely intimate act, her husband Mel walks in the room. It’s that innocence at the heart of the characters that keeps it from becoming sordid or appalling. It’s outrageous, and vulnerable.
Russell is one of my all-time favorite directors and “Flirting with Disaster,” his sophomore effort, is one of the most seriously funniest movies, one you’ll find yourself chuckling at first and then as it progresses and builds momentum, you’ll be laughing hysterically. It recalls classic comedies of the 1930s directed by Howard Hawks or Ernst Lubitsch. I’ve always admired the characters in Russell movies who refuse to be defined by the way the world expects them to be and fight with all their might against those expectations. His movies deal with the roles we’re expected to follow and what happens when you try and change them. Think of Pat Solitano in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012), who struggles to reenter society because of a crippling bipolar disease until he meets Tiffany, who’s fighting her own demons. The two of them find solace when they figure out how to dance to their own tune. There’s also Micky Ward and his brother Dicky in “The Fighter” (2010), who face battles in and out of the ring. There’s beautiful ennui in all of his protagonists for there’s loneliness involved in having to go against the grain. Russell has been nominated three times for the Oscar for best director for “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” (2014).
And I haven’t even started talking about his directing style. He’s great with an ensemble of actors, managing to get great performances out of all of them, from Lily Tomlin to Robert DeNiro to Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper. He’s built a group of regulars that excel when collaborating with him. There’s a sense of the unexpected in his work, the narrative taking a left turn when you least expect it. There’s a rhythm to his storytelling, both in the words as well as in the visuals that start picking up steam, then reaching a point where things seem to be out of control or going off the rails… yet that’s where the magic starts happening. Reminds me of the classic Moliere comedies in which you need chaos for balance to be ultimately restored. “Flirting with Disaster” is an appropriate title when speaking about the Russell oeuvre.
Mel (Ben Stiller) is married to Nancy (Patricia Arquette) and they’ve recently welcomed a newborn in New York. Mel refuses to name his child until he finds his biological parents. He’s reached out to Tina, a caseworker at an adoption agency who has located the identity of his mother, and he wants to meet her in person. His adoptive parents, Ed and Pearl, are not too happy when Mel announces the road trip. His mother exclaims, “Why does he have to do the Roots thing? Aren’t we good enough parents?” Tina asks them if she can tag along to document the reunion “for research,” video camera on hand. A former dancer, going through a divorce and wanting a child herself, Tina is a third wheel between Nancy and Mel when they’re at their most vulnerable. “This woman strikes me as being very dangerous,” says Mel’s mother, stating the obvious.
What makes the film more prescient than ever is the collision of two Americas, suburbanite liberals and the middle America they encounter along the way, set against the conversation of what constitutes a modern family. Things don’t go as planned. Tina botched the information, and the first visit to Valery Swaney in San Diego, the alleged natural mother, turns out to be a misunderstanding and ends; though not before we get to see her proud display of Ronald Reagan in her living room, and Mel knocking over all her precious glass knick knacks.
The film becomes a runaway train as they continue traveling across the country looking for the real parents, picking up two agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin),
all leading to Antelope Springs, NM where we finally meet the biological parents (deliciously played by Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda) who are making LSD tab sheets with the face of Ronald Reagan. Mel’s adoptive parents (played by Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal, as if they were both on the verge of a nervous breakdown) sense he might be in trouble and head across the country to save him. The fender-bender of both dysfuncitonal Americas is hysterical. Amidst all the fun, there’s a soulfulness that makes Russell’s work timeless.
Mrs. Coplin : “If I overreacted, why am I wearing handcuffs in the middle of a jail?”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO Max, DIRECTV and to rent on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft, Redbox, iTunes and Apple TV+
Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Téa Leoni, Alan Alda, Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal
Lily Tomlin, Richard Jenkins
Reflecting on “Flirting with Disaster”
“The first half, all I see is me as a beginning filmmaker,” Russell told the audience Friday night at AFI Fest’s 20th anniversary screening of the movie, sponsored by FilmStruck, Miramax, and IndieWire. “But the movie is like a runaway wagon, and it does just take off. It reminds me of the comedies that inspired me.” Russell was joined by “Flirting” star Lily Tomlin, who said she joined the movie (Russell’s second) partly because she loved the director’s first film, “Spanking the Monkey.” “When I read the [‘Flirting’] script, I laughed every time,” she said. “It was just so hilarious.” Russell said “Flirting” was very much a movie of its time: “In the mid-’90s, sexual dysfunction and family dysfunction was all the rage.”…Russell pointed out that “Flirting” flirted with the idea of “two Americas” 20 years ago. “It was quite subversive at the time, and then not subversive,” Weiner said. “And now subversive again.” Responded Russell: “Yeah, we’re in the middle of an America that just made gay marriage and adoption legal, and who knows now. Let’s hope that stays.” “Flirting with Disaster” was inspired by films like “Shampoo” and “Husbands and Wives,” and Russell said he heard from “heroes” like Warren Beatty and Woody Allen after they saw it. “Flirting” was all about “social norms people try to live that are never perfect and blowing sideways disasters,” Russell said. “The whole movie is [about] social posture, the rules of the game.” (indiewire.com)
About Cinematographer Eric Edwards
Eric Edwards has been behind the camera on more than 35 films including director Gus Van Sant’s 1991 seminal “My Own Private Idaho,” for which he garnered an Independent Spirit Award nomination. In 1996, two films shot by Edwards premiered at the Cannes Film Festival: Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For,” starring Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon, and director Larry Clark’s first feature effort, the highly controversial, and dangerous “Kids.” The following year, Edwards’ natural, edgy photographic style returned to Cannes with David Russell’s quirky comedy “Flirting with Disaster,” starring Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette and Téa Leoni. Eric went on to shoot the sensual and sweaty “Cop Land” with director James Mangold, which starred Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta. His gritty, handheld camera work illuminated “Another Day in Paradise,” with Melanie Griffith, James Woods and Joaquin Phoenix. Likewise, his handsome visual flourishes told the story of “Clay Pigeons,” starring Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix. Edwards moved to a 2.35 widescreen format, for the ‘big sky’ Montana indie
“The Slaughter Rule,” for the provocative filmmaking twins Alex and Andrew Smith, which competed at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, Eric’s fourth film at the festival. Eric broadened his horizons to big budget comedies with “Knocked Up,” the block-buster comedy for director Judd Apatow, starring Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, and “The Break Up” directed by Peyton Reed starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston. Edwards has continued to work with interesting filmmakers on movies such as “Management,” directed by Stephen Belber, starring Steve Zahn, and Jennifer Aniston, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” directed by Asia Argento and written by the very controversial J. T. Leroy, “Love Happens,” for director/writer Brandon Camp starring Aaron Eckhart, and “Virginia” for director/writer Dustin Lance Black (Academy Award winner for the script of “Milk”), starring Ed Harris and Jennifer Connolly.
In 2011 Edwards reteamed with David Dobkin to film “The Change Up” starring Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman. In addition to his film work, Edwards is highly sought out for his clean, clear images for international commercials and music videos for the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Donna Summers, Alanis Morissette, Paul Simon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers whose video Under the Bridge won MTV’s best music video of the year. Edwards is also known for his work in documentaries. The 1989 “Haunted Heroes” about returned Vietnam vets who have retreated to the woods in America as survivalists, won the Prix D’ Italia award. Recent films include “Dirty Grandpa” starring Robert De Niro and Zak Efron, a new comedy/drama “The Hollars” both directed by and starring John Krasinski with an ensemble cast including Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins and Anna Kendrick which premiered at Sundance, and comedy/fight film called “Fist Fight” directed by Richie Keen, starring Ice Cube and Charlie Day. (ericedwardsdp.com) His most recent works include “Tall Girl” (2019) and “The Opening Act” in 2020.
About Composer Stephen Endelman
Stephen Endelman is a Grammy-nominated composer, arranger, producer, and educator whose work ranges from lush, classical film scores, to contemporary, pop-driven tapestries. He has worked with many artists, including Elvis Costello, Diana Krall, KT Tunstall, Sheryl Crow, Robbie Williams, Alanis Morissette, Natalie Cole and the soprano Renee Fleming. Endelman is currently in the process of writing a Broadway show based on the iconic British television show, “Upstairs Downstairs,” for which he obtained the rights in 2016. He has just finished working with Raymond DeFelitta, his longtime collaborator, on Bottom of the 9th, a baseball drama starring Sofia Vergara and Joe Manganiello, and in April 2018, Stephen completed production of his own short film “A Boy, a Man, and a Kite,” which he plans on developing into a full length feature in the coming months. Endelman began teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2015, heading a weekly class for composition students specializing in film and television. As a result of his efforts, the Guildhall is now offering a first study program in media composition. His passion for education began while still a student at the Guildhall, when he invested himself in a program by Peter Renshaw titled, Music, Performance, and Communication Skills; which encourages professional musicians to give back to their community. After graduate school, Stephen became head of performing arts at Stoke Newington High School. He was there until 1992, and loved every day. He has maintained contacts with a number of his students, and has watched their careers flourish. As a composer in residence at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, for which he was awarded the 1996 ASCAP Composer-in-Residence at The Metropolitan Opera Guild Award, Stephen got his first major studio project working on Nancy Savoca’s film “Household Saints,” followed by the Warner Brother’s film Imaginary Crimes for Anthony Drazen. He subsequently worked closely with Robert De Niro on his directorial debut, “A Bronx Tale.” Stephen then began a collaboration with Miramax Films, which entailed a ten picture deal, including films such as David O’Russell’s comedy “Flirting With Disaster” and Christopher Monger’s “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.”
In 2016, Endelman divided his work between feature film and television, including ABC’s “Madoff,” “Chasing Life,” and “Hindsight.” He has also written the score for the Netflix documentary, “Atari Game Over,” as well as the upcoming documentary, “High Notes.” Other credits include, David Mamet’s “Redbelt,” starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tim Allen and Emily Mortimer for Sony pictures, and “The Grand” for director Zak Penn, starring Woody Harrelson. Endelman’s second collaboration with director Irwin Winkler was MGM’s “Home of the Brave,” starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel and 50 Cent. The film and soundtrack were released in 2006. The album features a song written by Sheryl Crow that Endelman co-wrote, arranged, and produced.” Crow and Endelman” received a golden globe nomination. In 2004, Endelman completed the MGM movie musical “De-Lovely,” for which he won Grammy nominations for Best Soundtrack of the Year: “De-Lovely” and Best Pop Male Vocal: Elvis Costello – “Let’s Misbehave”. Endelman produced and arranged both the on-camera music and the Gold-certified Sony soundtrack album which held steady on Billboard’s Top 200 pop chart for over a year. Endelman received critical acclaim for his score to Bruce Beresford’s and Paramount Classics’ “Bride of the Wind,” the story of Alma and Gustav Mahler. Endelman also completed music for Gala Films “Blue Butterfly,” starring John Hurt and “I’m With Lucy” for Jon Sherman staring Monica Potter and John Hanna. In 2000, Endelman garnered critical praise for his unique score for “Passport to the Universe,” a public commission for the first Space Show in the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Endelman began playing the clarinet at age seven and became a full-time scholar at The Purcell School of Young Musicians at age twelve. He studied composition at London’s Guildhall School of Music Drama and the Banff School of Fine Arts in Canada. Besides his growing body of film work, Endelman has composed two operas and at the age of 18 and wrote the music for the Tony-Award winning Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Over 70 film credits have followed including Lionsgate’s “Two Family House,” which received an Audience Award for Best Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival 2000, Disney’s “Tom and Huck,” Norman Rene’s “Reckless,” and Largo Entertainment’s “City of Industry,” directed by John Irvin. He also scored October Film’s “Kicked in the Head,” a Martin Scorsese production directed by Matthew Harrison, Polygram Filmed Entertainment’s “The Proposition,” Largo Entertainment’s “Finding Graceland,” Morgan Creek’s “Imaginary Crimes,” and Sony’s cult classic “Jawbreaker.” (stephendendelman.com)
About Writer and Director David O. Russell
David Owen Russell is an American film writer, director, and producer, known for a cinema of intense, tragi-comedic characters whose love of life can surpass dark circumstances faced in very specific worlds. His films address such themes as mental illness as stigma or hope; invention of self and survival; the family home as nexus of love, hate, transgression, and strength; women of power and inspiration; beauty and comedy found in twisted humble circumstances; the meaning of violence, war, and greed; and the redemptive power of music above all. Russell has been nominated for five Academy Awards® and four Golden Globes®. He has won four Independent Spirit Awards and two BAFTA Awards. He has been nominated for three WGA awards and two DGA awards. He has collaborated with actors Bradley Cooper, Robert Deniro, Jennifer Lawrence, and Mark Wahlberg, on three films each, and with Christian Bale and Amy Adams, on two films each. Jennifer Lawrence won the Academy Award for Best Actress in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and Christian Bale and Melissa Leo won for best supporting actor and actress in “The Fighter” (2010). Russell is the only director to have two consecutively-released films (“Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and “American Hustle” (2013)) garner Academy Award® nominations in all four acting categories. Jennifer Lawrence earned an Academy Award® nomination and Golden Globe® win for Best Actress for her work in Russell’s most recent film “Joy” (2015). To date Russell’s films have garnered a total of 26 Academy Award nominations and 19 Golden Globe nominations. In 2016, the Art Directors Guild honored Russell with the Contribution to Cinematic Imagery Award.
Russell is a board member and longtime supporter of the Ghetto Film School, which helps develop and support emerging filmmakers in the South Bronx and runs the nation’s first film public high school. He also has been an ardent supporter of the Glenholme School, a therapeutic boarding school for children and young adults with special educational needs. He was instrumental in raising funds to build a new arts center at Glenholme that opened in 2011. Glenholme honored Russell in 2011 with the Bowen Award for Outstanding Support and in 2015 with the Doucette Award for Longstanding Commitment. Russell was recently honored by the renowned McLean Hospital for his efforts to advance public awareness of mental health issues through advocacy and his 2012 film “Silver Linings Playbook.” The director has been open about his own family’s experiences with mental illness. His advocacy efforts brought him to Washington where he and actor Bradley Cooper supported legislation in Congress and met with Vice President Joe Biden to also discuss parity for mental health in all health care. Born in New York City, Russell attended public schools in Mamaroneck, NY. He continued his education at Amherst College, where he majored in literature and political science, and was given an honorary degree in 2002. He started as a writer before making his first documentary short about the Hispanic immigrant community in Boston. He earned critical acclaim early in his career in 1994 when he wrote and directed his first feature film, “Spanking the Monkey,” which won the Audience Award at Sundance and two Independent Spirit Awards for Best First Feature and Best First Screenplay. Russell’s early films include “Three Kings” (1999) and “Flirting with Disaster” (1996). (direct-partners.squarespace.com)