Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Flirting with Disaster -- adoption and identity

Director: David O. Russell, 1996. (R)

Flirting with Disaster starts out with Mel Coplin (Ben Stiller) talking to his adoption counselor Tina Kalb (Tea Leoni), a seemingly serious occasion and conversation. But very quickly its true nature emerges as it ascends into screwball comedy. And it is funny, laugh out loud funny, even if it is highly sexualized throughout.

Mel is adopted. We find that out in this first scene. And that has him stuck. His wife Nancy (Patricia Arquette) gave birth to their son four months earlier and they have yet to name him. Mel is convinced that if he finds his birth parents he will get in touch with his roots and the right name for his boy will magically surface. So when Tina tells him she has found his mother, he is ready to embark on a cross-country journey to find and meet her. The catch is, Tina is joining the Coplin threesome so she can videotape the emotional reunion. She is also paying their costs.

Writer-director Russell has pulled together quite an ensemble comedy cast. Alongside straight man Stiller and Arquette, George Segal and Mary Tyler Moore show up as his brash adoptive New York parents. Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) and Josh Brolin (True Grit) play the weirdest FBI agents you’ll come across in a long time, while Alan Alda and Lily Tomlin are his birth parents, throwback hippies. This year’s Tower Heist reunited Stiller, Alda and Leoni in a modern comedy but here we really see the comic skills of Leoni. Her timing is spot-on, and she even looks like a younger Annette Benning.

Mel, Nancy and Tina begin their trip in San Diego, but from there they move to the mid-West and New Mexico. With each leg of the journey, the plot gets wilder and the characters they meet get zanier. And along the way, the sexual chemistry between Mel and Tina heats up while Nancy meets an old school friend whose interest in her increases the tensions all around.

This is a road-trip to self-discovery for Mel. He wants to find his real identity. But how much truth is there in this concept? Certainly our identity is connected to our parental relationship. In many Western countries, we carry the surname or family name of our fathers. I am a Baggs by virtue of being born into the Baggs family. More than this, though, we bear a genetic connection to our parents, since they contributed to our DNA. When we know them and their traits, we find ourselves to a large degree. We often carry these traits ourselves, hence the sayings “a chip off the old block” or “like father like son”.

Relationship is important in terms of identity. As humans we find our identity in God. He formed us in the beginning in his image (Gen. 1:26), and from this initial creation we go onto procreate in our image and in his. Despite the fall (Gen. 3), we still bear the image of God (1 Cor. 11:7), our initial Father. We are his offspring (Acts 17:29).

But since Mel did not know his birth parents he had no information on his genetic ancestors. Yet he had a real relationship with his adoptive parents. They raised him from babyhood to adulthood. There is value and depth in that relationship, and those years spent in their home molded him into something of their neurotic image, whether part of his DNA or not.

Adoption is a key theme and is important to us, as well as to Mel. We are reminded that when Adam turned away from God in the garden of Eden, he separated himself from the father. We now bear a scar from that original sin, and find ourselves out of the family. Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to call the Pharisees, and by implication many of us, children of the devil, the father of lies (Jn. 8:44). But the good news is that we can be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18) and adopted into his family (Rom.8:15). We find our identity now through adoption. Our old nature is gone, our new nature is here.

Mel’s journey led him from his adoptive parents to his birth parents. Our journey to discovering our identity need not be as wild and crazy. But we will only get there if we submit to God’s adoption!

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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