Despite their reputations, some films and filmmakers just don't do it for Funderburg and Cribbs. This series, Second Chances, follows their attempts to find greatness where they've previously failed to see it; to actively make an effort to appreciate esteemed artworks for which they currently have a distaste (or feel indifference). They'll give cult favorites like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer another shot and dig deep in the filmographies of beloved auteurs whose appeal baffles them (like Federico Fellini) - and with a little luck, maybe they'll even end up as newly-minted fans...
The subject: Flirting with Disaster.
I hated this movie when it came out. That might seem like the most unremarkable statement I could make about a film, but it's actually a little strange. For starters, the director of Flirting with Disaster, David O. Russell, has come to be a filmmaker with whom I identify deeply, a guy I really think of as being the rare person to express a point of view similar to my own. Also, back in the mid-90's, before the nights at various museums and the meeting of parents and diminuative fockers, like most right-thinking folks, I really liked Ben Stiller. But when Flirting with Disaster was released, I despised it sight unseen. It's true - I hated this movie before I even saw it and when I did see it, it only confirmed my pre-existing feelings. That's a little weird, right? In the context of teenagerdom, where opinions exist almost exclusively to be validated, it's not that strange of a phenomenom: what 15-year-old isn't on some level an intractable know-it-all? I have few memories of the film itself, but have many memories of my annoyed resistance to the ad campagin for it, which touted it as the greatest comedy since Woody Allen decided to stop being funny. Make no mistake about it, my feelings about the film related almost entirely to it being a symbol of something larger I disliked: critics who felt that AmerIndie comedies were the best thing happening in the world of contemporary cinema and that Hollywood in the 70's was the apex of the medium. The praise for Flirting with Disaster could be distilled to "it's like something that would have been made in Hollywood in the 70's!" - the concept was clinched when you factored in actors like George Seagel, Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin, who are literal and spiritual links to that era of daring Hollywood rebels who brought us unparalled masterpieces like Brewster McCloud, The Night They Raided Minsky's, Sugarland Express, At Long Last Love, the dream sequence in The Conversation and Little Big Man.
Hollywood in the 70's has never been my thing, and the deluded reverence for the era frosts my cupcakes. Great films were made in those years, of course, but there's never been a time in the history of the meduim when great films aren't being made in Hollywood and elsewhere. The hagiographical tales of people like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg never sat well with me - even in their heyday, the 70's Hollywood "geniuses" produced some cloying, commerical dreck, some great films were made alongside plenty of bad ones, some ambitious films with mixed results produced contemporaneously with solidly average fare. The era produced so many "important" films that have aged rottenly, from Network to Klute to The Deer Hunter to The Last Detail, that it was always hard for me to share an enthusiasm for the critical chorus singing songs about the Good Old Days. As a clueless neophyte teenager, I would seek out films like The French Connection and The Exorcist only to be left with a feeling of "I just don't understand why people think William Friedkin is an artist. Or even a good filmmaker, really." In many ways, whatever critics were responding to about those films when they came out had totally evaporated by the time I saw them in the mid-90's. They're fine, sure - I'm not here to argue they're worthless movies. Are they art? I just couldn't see the argument. I just couldn't understand why critics would bring up Friedkin or Scorsese and say "they sure don't make them like that anymore!" What's the qualitative difference between The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs? What's the difference between Taxi Driver and Goodfellas? "Oh, well, in the 70's everyone was making films like that." That's obviously bullshit. More nostalgia for an age that never existed. More of these moronic baby boomers trying to tell me how they stopped Vietnam though the power of nude dancing and freeform poetry a mere decade after it began. More "you kids today - you don't understand how it was when real artists took chances!"
When the mid-90's AmerIndie boom happened, there was a definite critical slant that played the "hey, man, it's the 70's all over again!" The general idea being that artists in Hollywood were finally starting to take real chances to produce real artworks. The unspoken part of the whole thing, the part that put me off for being unspoken, was that these hot new artists were taking real chances to produce real artworks with real commercial prospects. The vomitous lie of the "art cinema went dormant in the 80's" narrative is that David Lynch wasn't working in Hollywood, She's Gotta Have It, Parting Glances, Stranger Than Paradise and The Unbelievable Truth didn't exist because they lacked commerical appeal. They were niche product. Woody Allen didn't have his biggest hit (before Midnight in Paris took the title) in 1986. No, that didn't happen. Scorsese didn't make Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, After Hours or The Last Temptation of Christ - because you couldn't make risky movies in Hollywood anymore. But art was saved once Quentin Tarantino and the Weinsteins started making hundreds of millions of dollars! It's like when The Exorcist and The Godfather made a bunch of money! To me the story of the death of the 70's went like this: a few over-rated artists made some duds - Hollywood didn't change. If you look at the 80's, there's plenty of amazing films being made in Hollywood - just off the top of my head, Cronenberg made a mass market hit with The Fly in 1986; you also got Aliens, Once Upon a Time in America, Full Metal Jacket, Blade Runner, Brazil, Crimes and Misdemeanors. Yup, Hollywood just hung up their hats because they didn't want to any longer make movies like Nickelodeon and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Shit, I'll take 15 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark over 50 hours of Apocalypse Now, but that's just my own personal taste. I'm just not as into ridiculous, self-important, ultra-pretentious crap as some folks. Folks like Pauline Kael. Distribution models changed in the 80's, for sure, but I'm not sure that's the same thing as great art not having an audience or a place to be screened. The whole mid-90's AmerIndie boom was saturated in a nostalgia for the 70's system - of course I was skeptical.
David O. Russell's first big studio film was explicitly positioned in these terms - as I mentioned, a lot of "it's like Woody Allen in the 70's, back when he was funny" talk floating around it. Even when I was a teenager (especially when I was a teenager), I knew when I was being marketed to and I felt the need to resist playing the role of willing stooge in a false narrative that implicitly congratulates its subscribers for being part of a cultural phenomenom - "cultural phenomenom" being code for "fiscally profitable product, one that Billy Crystal can feel confident making jokes about during the Oscars that even you mother will understand." When I finally saw the movie, it didn't strike me as so notably more sophisticated than any number of mainstream comedies that came around the same time like Kingpin or Beavis and Butthead Do America. It certainly wasn't more legitimately a piece of art. It was a goofy, somewhat broad comedy, not anything world-shattering or subtle or meaningful in an adult way. Like any comedy it lived or died on the strength of its jokes, not its philosophy or artistry, and it honestly wasn't nearly as funny (or inventive) as a Stiller-cameoing comedy from the same year, Happy Gilmore. To douse my ire, it would have need to wildly exceed my expectations. It did not.
Reason for reassessment:
Anything that I wrote above isn't, you know, a good reason for disliking a film. It's actually a bit... insane what I wrote up there. A filmmaker's got nothing to do with his marketing campaign and even less to do with the way his work is positioned by critics in terms of the larger culture. In my defense, when you feel like you're on the front line of a culture war, it always seems more important to take a stand than it really is. Triply so when you're a teenager. At this point, those battles seem distant and embarrassingly pointless to me - I still don't love Hollywood in the 70's, but as I've come to explore more and more of the world of le cinema, I've come to appreciate guys like William Friedkin or Arthur Penn where, even if I don't like their universally-adored canonized classics, I do really dig minor works like To Live and Die in L.A. or Penn and Teller Get Killed. And as I've gotten older, I care less and less about the larger critical landscape. I'm genuinely just too out-of-step with it for it to really matter to me - just look at any of my Years in Review. I probably come across like a doggedly contrarian nutjob who spends all of his time writing manifestos in his basement about the true nature of art. I suppose there really are people out there who care whether the Best Picture Oscar goes to Avatar or The Hurt Locker, who really care about the mass market success or commercial prospects of the films they like, who really want to have most if not all people agree with them what's good or what's bad, but I'm not one of them. Frankly, they seem a little crazy to me. Who cares if Albert Brooks wins an Oscar for Drive or not? How could Albert Brooks himself even care? It seems insane to care. Utterly insane. But I probably feel that way because no one's ever going to even consider thinking about suggesting that Mati Diop deserves an Oscar for 35 Rhums or that the Academy should nominate Life without Principle for Best Screenplay. My opinions on that sort of thing just diverge wildly from the rest of reality. Remember: I just told you that I think both The Exorcist and Apocalypse Now are a waste of time - not even "bad," but "worthy of nonexistence." Who cares what I think? Why should I care what critics who love that sort of thing think about the latest Ben Stiller comedy? Even if we're still back in 1996 and he hadn't made it his mission to disappoint everyone who believed he wouldn't make a movie about talking animals or farting babies?
So let's get down to the shit that matters, namely: David O. Russell. He's a divisive figure for a variety of reasons, whether it be those insane clips of him freaking out on the set of I Heart Huckabees or the recent accusations that he molested his transsexual niece. His films themselves tend to inspire strong emotions - it's not difficult to find people who despise Huckabees or think the very concept of Spanking the Monkey is beyond the pale. I understand all that, but remember I'm totally out of step with human decency. I can't justify why the obviously odious aspects of Russell and some of his work don't bother me, but they don't. As much as I hated Flirting with Disaster, I instantly loved Three Kings. From Thomas Newton Siegel's beautiful cinematography to its unashamedly leftist political bent to the brilliant screenplay to Spike Jonze as a goofy redneck, the film totally bowled me over. I saw it in a theater on Louisiana's North Shore, a notoriously racist and conservative setting and the audience I saw it with started out hooting and laughing at the mentions of "camel jockey" and the hyperbolic depictions of war-time violence but by the end of the film were in total silence. I loved that the film could take an audience like that and shut them the hell up. I feel even greater affinity for Huckabees - it stands alongside Miami Blues as the films with which I identify most closely. Jason Schwartzman's idealistic but easily-manipulated community organizer might as well be me. Not only do I work at a not-for-profit doing work I really believe in, but Huckabees really nails the prevalence of folks like Jude Law's Brad Stand in that kind of world and the "I need this person/I hate this person" battle that goes on in someone like Schwartzman's (or my) mind. People like Brad Stand are genuinely mysterious on a certain level - plus, his existential breakdown at the of the film ("How am I not myself?") cuts right to the heart of the phoniness and self-importance always lurking around inside everybody. It's hard not to get caught up in the fact that "Robert Redford is coming to the JBFC!" and take that as some kind of badge of personal worth just because you're in the same room with somebody important... even though what I really care about is showing nice prints of Touchez Pas Au Grisbi and Monte Walsh. I'm not sure I can articulate my feelings on I Heart Huckabees in a couple of sentences, but just understand that Huckabees is more than a film I like or admire for its artistry, it's a film that is me in some basic way. It seems hard to believe that Russell could be the same guy who made Flirting with Disaster and Huckabees and furthermore that Flirting would be the one to garner a more positive critical reception. If there's even a smattering of what I love about Huckabees to be found in the Ben Stiller adoption comedy, then it deserves my attention.
Well, forget it. Normally, I spend the most time in these Second Chances writing about my experience of re-viewing the object d'art in question, but in the case of this one, it's really not worth it. Flirting with Disaster stinks, possibly even worse than I remember it stinking; it's so painfully bland and hokey that I have almost nothing to say about it. The thin plot goes exactly like this: Stiller meets with an adoption agency to find his real parents. He tells his wife (Patricia Arquette), then his parents (George Seagal & Mary Tyler Moore), then meets a woman who turns out not to really be his mother (Celia Weston) and a guy who turns out to not really be his dad (David Patrick Kelly) before he finally meets his real parents (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda.) The first two "false parent" meetings are ridiculously brief and perfunctory, based around a single slapstick set-piece (Stiller shattered Weston's glass menagerie! Stiller uses Kelly's big-rig to run over a post office!) and don't develop beyond their "hardy-har-har" premise. Weston is a good ol' Southern Christian, Kelly is a foul-mouthed trucker driver! The Tomlin/Adla section is slightly longer and more involved, but it still boils down to a wacky series of happenings that wouldn't appear on a sitcom only because they revolve around LSD. Because so little happens in the film, Russell adds a pointless mirrored-pair of subplots that finds Tea Leoni as a predatorily urbane case worker (doctoral student? she's doing some kind of research on reunited families) with an instant sexual attraction to Stiller and Richard Jenkins & Josh Brolin as a duo of gay cops who decide to come to Arizona with Stiller/Leoni/Arquette. So much of the film is unconvincing and under-realized, but Brolin takes the cake for implausibility as a bisexual armpit fetishist who randomly convinces his gay boyfriend to accompany a girl he knew from high school on a trip to Arizona to meet her husband's birth parents. It's so stupid there's nothing to really be said about it. The plot is thin but overstuffed with manic zaniness and patience-testing leaps of narrative logic. You can poke holes in its story flaws all day long because none of the characters are interesting or complex enough for you to hang your hat on - it's a plot-driven film with a piss-poor plot.
The film tries frequently to fall back on manic comedy, but it's so listless and uninspired that the pervasive wackiness is painful. The "parents" Stiller meets are all thinly drawn "types" - Alda and Tomlin are the worst of all because we have to spend so much time with them and they never develop beyond "former hippies." Stiller and Arquette have reasonably realized characters, but it's tough to care about anything there are going through because they are surrounded by silly caricatures - the plot grinds Stiller and Arquette through its ridiculous machinations and by the end of the movie Stiller's motivations for finding his birth parents and the toll doing so takes on his marriage are an after-thought, despite being the entire point of the film. This is a film in which both too much and too little happens - by trying to stay afloat on wacky gags and high-larious plot turns, it forgets the only elements that make it compelling and totally loses the thread of just what exactly the point is supposed to be. More than that, it's too broad by about 15 city-blocks: for example, Alda & Tomlin have a teenaged son who is jealous of Stiller's presence. He acts out by dosing the chicken dinner with LSD, which leads to a lot of fake-y "I'm on drugs!" acting from Richard Jenkins when he accidentally eats the meal intended for Stiller. That's bad enough, but the real kicker is Glenn Fitzgerald's ri-goddamned-diculous performance as the fey, pouty son. He's a weird amalgamation of clichéd tics that's hard to imagine any actor finding a way to fit together: over-grown manchild, self-serious goth, artsy hippy, petulant villain. It's one of the worst performances I've ever seen: silly, theatrical, mannered, shallow...you name it. And he takes over the film for a good stretch of time, a real problem for a film that's only 92 minutes long - it can't afford to give over 7 of those minutes to this failed creation's tired, unconvincing antics. Yes, the relationship between Stiller and his "new" brother could be interesting, but Stiller disappears for almost all of Fitzgerald's antics: it's all about Jenkins' freakout and Alda/Tomlin's weak attempts to deal with him. The film loses Stiller and becomes about the moronic crap furiously going on around him.
I want to cut this film some slack, I really do. I'm genuinely fond of a lot of the actors peppered throughout: Arquette, Leoni, David Patrick Kelly, Richard Jenkins, Lily Tomlin, George Seagal, even Stiller in one of his more serious roles. It's not a bad idea for a movie and individual scenes have potential, but never quite come together - the same can be said for film-arching ideas like the nascent sexual tension between Leoni and Stiller or Arquette's feelings of inadequacy as an anxious young mother with a baby-ruined body. What Flirting with Disaster needs is another few rewrites and a couple more days of rehearsal time. With a little more focus and tightness, it wouldn't be the big screaming nothing that it is in its current form. I would go so far as to say that if Russell were to make it now, in 2012, it would actually turn out to be quite good - he's matured light-years as a stylist since 1996 and he's become much better at expressing his deeply idiosyncratic personality through his work, even in films that don't necessarily seemed suited to it, like The Fighter. It's funny: of all of his films, Spanking the Monkey included, Flirting with Disaster is the one most similar to I Heart Huckabees. My distaste for Flirting isn't for what it's attempting to do, but only how badly it fails at bringing together broad comedy and genuine emotion. The difference might boil down to this: the center doesn't hold with Flirting with Disaster, it loses the Stiller/Arquette relationship in the swirl of background shenanigans, while Huckabees is held together and constantly refocused by the Schwartzman/Law dynamic. Both films are overpopulated with side characters and slapstick comedy, sexual deviations and existential crises, only Huckabees coheres around its central characters while Flirting flounders. I wish I could tell you that Flirting appears to be a dry run for Huckabees, that I can see how its ideas and approach transformed into the superior film, but that's not the case. You can see Russell in Flirting with Disaster, but you can't see what makes his films great. It's a film which it's impossible to identify.
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