Flirting with Disaster (David O. Russell)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

I don't know what's the matter with me lately -- I've been responding to acclaimed comedies with a pronounced absence of mirth. I found The Birdcage only intermittently funny, and sat through arthouse yukfests French Twist, Denise Calls Up, and The Young Poisoner's Handbook in stony silence, wondering what everyone around me found so hilarious. Flirting with Disaster, David O. Russell's sophomore effort, is the latest casualty of my inexplicable dissatisfaction with all things comedic. Russell's debut, Spanking the Monkey, was somewhat overpraised, in my opinion, but I was impressed by his ability to mine subtle humor from a subject usually treated with the utmost gravity. "Subtle," however, is not an appropriate adjective with which to describe Flirting with Disaster; the film has a desperately zany tone throughout, and I felt as if I were constantly being prodded to laugh, which inevitably led to resistance on my part. Like Scorsese's After Hours -- a film I adore -- Flirting features a down-to-earth protagonist (in this case accompanied by an equally naturalistic spouse, played by Patricia Arquette) encountering numerous wacky, larger-than-life characters played by well-known Hollywood actors; unfortunately, it has none of After Hours' dazzling visual style, and Ben Stiller makes a much less appealing befuddled hero than did Griffin Dunne. Moreover, Russell's dialogue, which was one of Spanking the Monkey's strengths, here too often seems confined to sitcom rhythms (though this may have more to do with the delivery of sitcom actors like Stiller, Téa Leoni, Alan Alda, and Mary Tyler Moore). The film should either have been less grounded in the real world, or more so; instead, it inhabits a bizarre comedic netherworld, one which I ultimately found rather tiresome. You'll probably like it more than I did. Just ignore me.