Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Don't judge the book

Now that 13 years have passed since David O. Russell's Flirting With Disaster was released, I think it's safe to say -- without hyperbole -- that it is one of the funniest comedies of the 1990s.

It may not have the household name recognition of some of the decade's other hits, but most of those who've seen it tend to break out in a grin upon hearing the title. And, frequently, quote some of the great lines from it. "You said mutilated!" "Please."

If you haven't seen this screwball comedy/road trip in which a neurotic adopted New Yorker (Ben Stiller) is driven to find his birth parents before he can name the baby his wife (Patricia Arquette) has just delivered, which turns into an epic multi-city journey involving an ever-growing party of fellow travelers (Tea Leoni, Josh Brolin, Richard Jenkins), then you need to go do that as soon as possible.

But please don't judge the video by its cover.

As we were watching my copy of Flirting With Disaster this past weekend while out of town with friends, I couldn't help but notice how ridiculously cheesy the DVD cover is -- and how poorly it advertises the product you're truly getting here. (See Exhibit A above).

Seeming more like a video cover from the late 1980s than the late 1990s, the Flirting With Disaster DVD cover seems fixated on making this movie primarily about extramarital temptation, when that's only one of the myriad funny things going on here. Other ways this cover is hilariously simplistic: 1) The characters are literally cut out from the space in which they were photographed, then pasted on a white background, while none of the poses they strike here are actually in the movie; 2) Tea Leoni's character is made to appear like some vampish femme fatale, when she's really just a flustered divorcee in over her head, trying to document the reunion between a grown adopted child and his birth parents as part of a study she's conducting. Another thing: I don't have any idea when that picture of Ben Stiller was taken, but it seems at least five years younger than how Stiller actually looks in the movie.

You flip over the DVD and it doesn't get much better. The pictures are better -- they're at least actual scenes from the movie. Stiller tries to get a video camera unhooked from Leoni's dress, revealing stockings and some thigh; Stiller is attacked by one mistaken birth father (David Patrick Kelly); Mary Tyler Moore lifts her shirt to reveal the perkiness of her sixtysomething breasts (concealed by a bra, naturally). But the two pictures featuring female undergarments seem designed primarily to support this ridiculous "critigasm" in the upper quadrant: "A sexy, laugh riot!" - PBS Flicks. Not only do I not think that's a particularly apt way to summarize the movie -- while it's very funny, its sexiness quotient is not as high as advertised -- but I also quibble with the grammar. If you are going to call something a "laugh riot" -- a dubious phrase if there ever was one -- the least you can do is treat it as a compound noun. Therefore, it would be "a sexy laugh riot" rather than "a sexy, laugh riot." You see, "sexy" tells us what kind of laugh riot it is, not what kind of riot it is.


I suppose Flirting With Disaster is not materially different from any number of movies that use advertising to trick you into expecting a different movie than you actually get. I discussed one of the most criminal cases of that here. And I suppose getting a product that's better than advertised is a lot better than getting a product that's worse than advertised.

But there was just something about that cheesy cover that made me have to write about it ...

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