When writer-director David O. Russell’s first film, Spanking the Monkey, was released in 1994, it seemed the latest in the independent cinema’s long line of dark, deadpan comediesa line that can be traced through Hal Hartley, Bruce McDonald and Jim Jarmusch, all the way back to Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Spanking the Monkeya wriggly serio-comedy about incestwas more fundamentally rooted in reality than the work of the above filmmakers, but it shared their philosophy that life is bizarre and stories are artificial, therefore anything (no matter how unusual) is normal in the movies.
Unfortunately, Spanking the Monkey also shared the biggest flaw of the neo-absurdists: a dispiriting glibness that leaves viewers unsure how to take the offbeat action. The film built quietly to a tense incident of mother-son incest, and once that moment passed, Spanking the Monkey fizzled. Instead of carrying his pitch-black comic set-up to either of its logical extremesgenuine insight or outrageous farceRussell backed away from both in an inconclusive letdown of a resolution. It was as if he’d rather maintain a hipster’s distance than deal with the real consequences of his material. And thus he sacrificed a potentially great film at the altar of cool.
Thankfully, Russell’s second film, Flirting With Disaster, finds a cure for this affectlessness. Flirting With Disaster follows Mel, an adopted New York City entomologist, in his quest to find his real parents, to understand his roots, and to forge a bond with his nameless newborn son. The journey propels Mel down some zany tracksinvolving beach volleyball twins, gay ATF agents, totalitarian Bed and Breakfast proprietors and other unexpected Americansbut Russell, in a refreshing change from his cool cinema brethren, acknowledges the zaniness and allows it to elevate to farce. By ratcheting the energy level up and infusing it with heartfelt mania, Flirting With Disaster both re-imagines and buries the neo-absurdist style.
Ben Stiller plays the neurotic Mel, the first of many inspired casting decisions. (The second is the casting of his parentsan endlessly kvetching Mary Tyler Moore and George Segal.) Stiller is best known for the under-appreciated Ben Stiller Show, a program that highlighted both his talent for impersonation and his ease with verbal comedy. His Mel is an extension of the Ben Stiller “character” that he played on that showan edgy, harmless modern man, fumbling to make himself understood and unable to suppress his wildest desires. Stiller plays the character with a combination of eagerness and pessimism that is consistently entertaining; his unique personality makes him worth following no matter where he travels.
And travel Mel doesfirst to San Diego, where he meets a potential mother, a transplanted Louisiana woman with two gorgeous twin daughters. Within the space of 10 minutes, Mel meets the woman, compliments her Ronald Reagan portrait (“I always felt I should have appreciated him more”), accidentally destroys her priceless collection of knickknacks and geegaws, receives a free T-shirt, and learns that the woman is not his mother after all. (He has to give back the shirt.)
From San Diego, he flies to Michigan, where he receives a disastrous truck-driving lesson from a former Hell’s Angel (David Patrick Kelly) who turns out to be another false alarm. Ultimately, he lands in Arizona, where he enjoys a wild dinner party thrown by his actual parentstwo aging hippies (played perfectly by Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin) who gave him up for adoption when they were convicted for drug trafficking.
The comedy in Flirting With Disaster comes not from the wacky situations, but from the characters’ reactions to them. In his disastrous adventures, Mel is joined by an insecure adoption-agency representative (played with casual sexiness by Téa Leoni) and Mel’s wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette), who joins the adventure with her patience already stretched thin. But Nancy does join inand therein lies the key to Russell’s inspiration. Flirting With Disaster draws its laughs from the boundless limits of human politeness, even in the face of overwhelming unpleasantness.
Russell’s method is to shove conflicting characters together, toss in some props, and see what happens. This leads to some classic momentsMel’s San Diego mom repeatedly calling the baby “a little cracker” while Nancy, speaking in the baby’s voice, answers, “No, I’m not! No I’m not!”; Mel sitting in the cab of a semi, reacting calmly to his Michigan dad’s anti-Semitic comments until he starts saying that Mel “has a real Hebe look about him”; and at last Mel, listening to his real parents wax nostalgic about their LSD outlaw days, and politely trying to ask if they were using drugs when he was conceived (“because that can really...you know...the genes...”).
Like many unique comic visionsnamely those of Woody Allen and Albert Brooks, to whom Russell can be favorably comparedFlirting With Disaster is not always a smooth ride. The endless anarchic action is often tiresome, and the way everything comes together at the end is both forced and weightless, as though Russell were leery of actually reaching a conclusion.
But when Russell’s crazy-quilt farce works, it’s a wonder to behold. The scene that lingers in my mind takes place on the chilly lot in Michigan, where Mel stumbles across the trucker who played a part in his life, but to whom he is not related. Mel and his entourage are not on the property five seconds before they are chased slowly by the owner; while scrambling away, they alternate every two-step retreat with a step forward, futilely trying to explain who they are. Finally, they just give up and run like hell. All of this happens so quickly that the details of what is happening become clear only gradually. By that time, the audience is doubled over with laughter.
David O. Russell’s peculiar genius is that he doesn’t stop with the idea that life is absurd; in Flirting With Disaster, he presumes to depict how we persevere through absurdity simply by struggling to maintain composure. In doing so, Russell creates something greater than what has been wrought by his predecessorsnot just a style, but a feeling. Spanking the Monkey may now be remembered as the first film in a promising career.
Out of Order
The ho-hum courtroom drama Primal Fear is the latest in a recent string of pretzel moviesfilms like Maverick, The Usual Suspects, and the remake of Diabolique that delight in fooling the audience by twisting the plot until it becomes completely inexplicable. Unlike the makers of those films, Primal Fear director Gregory Hoblit and screenwriters Steven Shagan and Ann Biederman want to use their sharp curves for a purposeto pick apart the arrogance and presumptions of criminal lawyersbut they’re too hooked on shock effects to explore this theme with the subtlety it deserves. Primal Fear’s approach to storytelling is ridiculously similar to the trial strategy of The Simpsons attorney Lionel Hutz: “Surprise witnesses! Each more surprising than the last!”
Primal Fear stars Richard Gere as Martin Vail, a hotshot Chicago defense attorney with a nose for publicity. When the Windy City is rocked by the brutal murder of a Catholic archbishop, Vail leaps to defend the prime suspect, a shy 20-year-old runaway/altar boy named Aaron Stampler. Vail initially takes the case for the excitement of the battle and its marquee value, but the more he digs, and the more secrets he uncovers (about the priest, about the DA’s office, and about Aaron), the more he begins to care about the outcome. By that time, however, he’s already made a handful of key mistakes, and he soon realizes that the only way to get the results he wants is to dispense with facts and put on a show.
Primal Fear is based on a popular novel by William Diehl, which was praised for its insight into the way lawyers often play games at the expense of truth. Diehl’s book suggests that the American legal system has stepped beyond the bounds of reasonable advocacy and into the realm of street theater, where the attorney and client with the loudest voices get the most favorable verdicts. Much of that moral ambiguity is also present in the movie version, most obviously in the look of the film, which is all cool gray and haze.
There’s a difference, though, between purposeful ambiguity and meaningless artifice. Primal Fear needs at least one well-defined character, one player in the drama who’s not involved with something sleazy. Instead, every character is capable of dirty, two-faced deedsnot because the filmmakers have some point to make about humanity, but because they need their characters to behave in a contradictory way to jolt us. Without a compelling champion of any kind, all the audience can do is grunt and strain to follow the action, which, in Primal Fear, is equally unrewarding.
Gere does what he can with his role, but Vail’s change from headline-chaser to moral warrior is too unconvincing to be salvaged by even a great performance. The problem isn’t that Vail is a flawed hero (although he is) but that he’s formlessneither well-intentioned nor dark enough to create excitement. It’s a tribute to Gere’s charisma that the character is watchable at all.
The rest of the cast fares better, with the exception of Laura Linney, who drapes her prosecuting attorney’s every line with brittle, mocking tones. (She can’t even be asked to step away for a private conversation without responding, “I am not your pawn!”) Newcomer Edward Norton does some eye-catching work as Aaron, and Andre Braugher’s cynical investigator steals every scene he’s ina stern reminder of how much fresher the average episode of Braugher’s Homicide is than Primal Fear (or, frankly, most any other mystery/suspense film these days).
I’ll follow critical etiquette and keep quiet about the film’s surprises, but I still insist that big secrets cheat the audience. Indeed, the effort put into playing up the novel’s plot twists obscures any point the film might have. (It’s not even clear why the movie is called Primal Fear.) The emphasis on hairpin turns is finally just so much wheel-spinning; when the final astonishing revelation comes, it’s so severe that it essentially nullifies all that we’ve just seen. What the cinematic knot tiers fail to understand is that when nothing is as it seems, then there’s no reason for an audience to make assumptions at all, or to care in the slightest about the characters, the story, or the themes. As a result, Primal Fear raises no goose bumpsonly objections.
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