On an uncharacteristically chilly morning in March, writer-director David O. Russell looks every bit the brooding auteur: uncombed black hair stands up in patches all over his head; flinty brown eyes manage to penetrate and deflect every bold question.
Russell doesn't take his image seriously, but he's earned it in the best possible way. He is among a generation of filmmakers who rode the tide into national consciousness based on positive receptions at Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. Like those of Steven Soderbergh and Todd Haynes, the film that got him his reputation--1994's Spanking the Monkey--was dark, uncompromising, but fiercely disciplined. Unlike Larry Clark and Edward Burns, however, who earned their critical popularity through brashness and a minimum of ingenuity, Russell has not been courted by the Hollywood establishment.
Is that really a surprise? Spanking the Monkey inspired belly laughs with its portrait of a premed freshman (Jeremy Davies) forced to relinquish an internship with the surgeon general's office so he can care for his invalid, acid-tongued mother (Alberta Watson). As his life spirals further and further out of control, the son sleeps with the mother in one confused, drunken moment.
"People focused too much on the act of incest," Russell insists, "rather than on what I said about family relationships--how as young adults we are sometimes expected to fulfill the unmet emotional needs of our parents. I just took it to the extreme."
His second film, Flirting With Disaster, takes the theme that Russell admits will probably be a constant in his work--"the weird tensions that run through a family"--and stretches it into one elaborate animal-shaped balloon after another. Ostensibly, the film concerns the quest of a very neurotic young man (Ben Stiller) who tries the patience of his ultrasensitive wife (Patricia Arquette) with a troublesome psychological block: He cannot name their first baby. An adopted child himself, the reluctant new father decides he is incomplete without finding his real birth parents. His abrasive mother (Mary Tyler Moore) and whiny father (George Segal) are less than pleased with his quest.
Stiller, Arquette, and baby boy set out across the country to meet his birth parents, with the assistance of an adoption counselor and grad student (Tea Leoni) who has just survived a messy divorce. What follows is an ambitious farce entangled in real and imagined bloodlines, as one set of parents (or would-be parents, in the case of the film's most surprising couple) after another throws roadblocks into Stiller's path to family stability. At bottom, of course, it's his own fear of fatherhood that fuels the obsession.
"When I finished the film, I really didn't know what I had on my hands," Russell confides. "It was my wife who finally clued me in. 'You've done a screwball comedy,' she said. And she showed me a book to prove it--a coffee table edition called Screwball."
Flirting With Disaster is hilarious throughout, although the fine messes in which Russell's characters become mired creak with occasional contrivance. A critic once described the essence of writing farce as mastering "the likely coincidence," and Russell doesn't always find natural transitions for his comic mayhem. Still, with so much prickly, delicious dialogue on which to feast, don't call his second film a sophomore slump; an impressive follow-up with occasionally bad posture might be more accurate.
The budget available to David O. Russell jumped about 80 percent between Spanking the Monkey and Flirting With Disaster. It's a measure of the confidence Russell has acquired working with Bob and Harvey Weinstein--the eccentric brother team at the top of Miramax, who are notorious for their love-at-first-sight devotion to directors they admire. With his debut, Russell didn't get the support he felt he needed.
"Fine Line [the company that distributed Spanking] blew it with that movie," he says. "Even Bob and Harvey said so. In its seventh week in release, Spanking the Monkey had a per screen average of $5,000. But they refused to open it wide for reasons I still don't understand." He pauses to laugh. "Am I bitter about this? Just a little bit.
"With 80 times the budget for Flirting, the pressure on me was about 80 times greater," Russell adds. "You know, when a big star like Mary Tyler Moore steps out of line, you finally just have to slap her."
The mock expression of a tyrannical auteur crumbles as Russell rushes to assure that he's joking. "I was in awe of her," he says. "We held rehearsals in my apartment, and my wife and I were thrilled at every gesture. When she asked to use the bathroom facilities, we were like, 'Mary Tyler Moore is sitting on our toilet right now!'"
Among a quartet of enthusiastic performances by TV and feature-film veterans (including Segal, Lily Tomlin, and Alan Alda), Moore distinguishes herself with a savory bitchiness that's established in an early scene. Audiences who've seen the trailer for Flirting With Disaster have gasped and cheered at the moment when Moore lifts her blouse to reveal a pair of preternaturally firm (and brassiered) breasts as part of a lecture about the importance of sport bras after pregnancy.
"My original concept was to have [Moore] and Dick Van Dyke play the birth parents," Russell says. "But she refused that idea right away. She came to the audition wearing a tight miniskirt, to let me know she could play this high-strung but sexy older woman who was the adoptive mother."
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As far as the rest of his seasoned supporting players, Russell says, "Basically, they're rich, comfortable professionals accustomed to working under all kinds of conditions. They can afford to be picky about the work they accept. But often, they don't get the work they deserve, because people take them for granted."
Although Russell grimaces at the notion of his being an independent filmmaker with a family chip on his shoulder, he freely admits that Flirting With Disaster is not only a jauntier, funkier thematic extension of Spanking the Monkey, but also a synthesis of some recent personal real-life experiences--the search by his adopted sister for her birth parents, and the birth two years ago of his first child Matthew. The "weird tension" he previously mentioned isn't elaborated in personal terms, but the subject still haunts him very much, much as it bedazzles and betrays the heroes of his two features--with whom he shares more than a passing physical resemblance.
"So many people look for a Holy Grail, for a mythical something outside themselves to answer all the questions," the director says. "With my movies, I like to puncture that kind of self-deception. In Flirting with Disaster, I wanted to deflate the beatific moment of reunion that [Ben Stiller's character] seeks. Everything he needs to know is already inside him."
Flirting With Disaster. Miramax. Ben Stiller, Patricia Arquette, Tea Leoni. Written and directed by David O. Russell. Now showing.