Continuing and expanding upon the insights into dysfunctional families writer-director David O. Russell served up in his promising but uneven first feature, “Spanking the Monkey,” this whacked-out road comedy about a young man’s search for his real parents takes any number of unexpected turns, most of them bitingly funny. The uniformly neurotic characters in this withering farce cross the generational and sexual spectrums, from vaguely Gen-X new parents and empowerment-seeking young femmes to New Agers, druggies, former hippies and Hell’s Angels.
Pic is about the frightening shallowness of people’s convictions and the difficulty of making responsible, informed decisions about life-determining matters when young, but it offers no assurances that people grow wiser with age.
Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) is a young New York dad who decides he can’t name his four-month-old son without having met his biological parents. A mirthful note is struck from the outset, as, in a snappy opening montage, he imagines countless strangers on the Manhattan streets as his potential folks.
Despite the objections of his loudly overbearing adoptive parents (George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore) –“Why does he have to do this ‘Roots’ thing?” his mother cries — Mel, his moody wife, Nancy (Patricia Arquette), and infant son fly to San Diego along with adoption agency shrink Tina (Tea Leoni), a hot number tense over her impending divorce.
But their stay in California is brief. They follow a new lead to snowy Michigan, where a scary former biker (David Patrick Kelly, in show-stopping form) lets on that his old lady back in the Bay area is Mel’s mother, but that another dude is his old man.
As the trip progresses, relations between Mel and Nancy go from strained to dire, as Mel develops an irrational but believable passion for the svelte, sharp-dressing Tina, while Nancy, still singing the postpartum blues, lets Tony fill the void left by her husband’s inattention.
But everyone’s heads are sent spinning when they arrive at the sprawling desert home of Richard and Mary Schlicting (Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin). Trouble piles on top of trouble when Mel’s New York folks, thinking he’s in trouble, show up as well.
Russell’s entire game plan is posited upon confounding expectations and then pushing the resulting unanticipated collisions to their furthest extremes. This approach gives birth to any number of utterly fresh, hilariously absurd scenes and makes this the polar opposite of the usual earnest, sympathy-hungry, heart-tugging tale about an adopted kid searching for real parents.
As bracing and original as it may be, there also is something a tad calculated about such a strategy, a feeling that surfaces only when the comedy isn’t clicking, which to Russell’s credit, rarely happens. However, by the final reel or so, a bit of strain is detectable in the film’s determined eccentricity.
Still, the laughs fly thick and fast through most of this oddball odyssey, in which parents of the past two generations are shown no quarter. The sexual humor , springing initially from the trouble Mel and Nancy have had jumpstarting their sex life post-baby, is pointed and true, and Russell has fun puncturing what’s left of ’60s cultural mores.
Cast is aces across the board, with Stiller befuddled by, but also complicit in, the complications that develop, Arquette very believably distracted and infuriated, and Leoni a coiled spring waiting to snap. Segal and Moore, and Alda and Tomlin, as the two sets of parents, bring their skills and tremendous iconographic status to bear to wonderful effect, and supporting turns down the line are unerringly on the money.
Tech contributions are solid.