David O. Russell’s Flirting with Disaster finds the farcical in the emotionally fragile events surrounding a man’s search for his biological parents. At a crossroads in his life — new son (for whom he can’t decide upon a name), a fading sex life with his wife, and the culmination of a lifelong identity crisis arising from his adoption as a baby — Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) or his need to feel a part of something he’s felt he has been missing is never the butt of any of the film’s jokes.

Neither is his ailing wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), who wants her and their new child to be enough for him. Neither is the adoption agent Tina (Téa Leoni), who was once a dancer but is now going for her doctorate and through a rough divorce. Neither are his adoptive parents (Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal), who have instilled their son with some additional neuroses but are heartbroken at the thought that he would want different parents (they just have a certain way of showing it), the slew of possible mother-and-father matches a buggy database at the adoption agency leads Mel to, or even a pair of federal agents (Richard Jenkins and Josh Brolin), in a relationship (in its own troubled times), wanting a child, and quick to confront any latent homophobic remarks aimed at them (“Neurotic guy,” Brolin’s Tony calls Mel, after the latter labels the two the “gay guys”).

Russell’s screenplay is determined to smash down whatever expectations we might have about these characters as types and about the situations in which they find themselves. Early on, after Mel, Nancy, and Tina arrive in San Diego to meet who Tina believes is Mel’s birth mother, they find themselves in what they believe to be a frightening, poten-tially deadly scenario. Mel’s parents warn them about carjackings in the city, particularly ones in which a criminal bumps another person’s car, luring them out to mutilate the driv-er and steal it. Whether such things happen is irrelevant, because they believe it. Enter a van that begins honking at them on the freeway, with a passenger urging them to pull over. Needless to say, their prejudices are entirely wrong.

It’s the first event in a pattern that forms the film’s humor — not at the expense of the characters but in light of how they perceive themselves, others, and the world.

The first stop for the trio is to visit Valerie (Celia Weston), a well-to-do, twice-divorced woman with a sketched portrait of Ronald Reagan on her wall and a menagerie of glass Chinese zodiac figurines in her living room (the first is a throwaway joke, and the second fits in vitally to their visit). Mel and Valerie eye each other with tender shock, observing where facial features match, and joking about how much taller she is than him. He meets his half-sisters (Beth Ostrosky and Cynthia Lamontagne) — tall, blonde volleyball players who take to him immediately and note that he kind of reminds them of their perverted uncle.

There’s sexual tension between Mel and Tina — both incredibly vulnerable at this time in their lives — and it causes some damage, which Valerie is perfectly fine with forgiving, until Tina uncovers an error in her research. Hence, there’s a cross-country trip from San Diego to Michigan, where Mel meets a man (David Patrick Kelly) who might be his fa-ther. The guy’s rough around the edges and casually anti-Semitic, but for all his numerous faults, he is sympathetic to Mel’s search and tries to give him truck-driving lessons (more destruction inevitably follows), even after yet another mistake is uncovered.

Finally, it’s to Albuquerque with the Feds in tow (on a vacation to solve some relation-ship problems of their own) to meet Richard and Mary Schlichting (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin), aging hippies who haven’t quite learned from earlier problems with the law. The climax of their meeting is a hilarious bit of play involving LSD-laced quail, one identical rental car too many, and the arrival of Mel’s unaware parents.

With Flirting with Disaster, Russell presents a gallery of issue-soaked characters that shapes an oddly loving tribute to the perils and value of families of all kinds.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

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