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Love at Large

Love at Large
1990 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 and 1:33 adapted pan-scan / 97 min. / Street Date January 13, 2004 / 14.95
Starring Tom Berenger, Elizabeth Perkins, Anne Archer, Kate Capshaw, Annette O'Toole, Ted Levine, Ann Magnuson, Kevin J. O'Connor, Ruby Dee, Barry Miller, Neil Young
Cinematography Elliot Davis
Production Designer Steven Legler
Art Direction Steve Karatzas
Film Editor Lisa Zeno Churgin
Original Music Mark Isham, Warren Zevon
Produced by Stuart M. Besser, David Blocker, Dana Mayer
Written and Directed by Alan Rudolph

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What sounds like a klunky idea for a romantic comedy - dueling detectives in the lonelyhearts racket - becomes one of Alan Rudolph's most endearing movies. A slightly dense leading character and a lot of quirky situations can't disguise the fact that Love at Large has its heart in the right place. Tom Berenger affects his voice with a growl that takes some getting used to, but he's a perfect oddball fit for the underused Elizabeth Perkins. Despite some problems in tone and pitch, this is a satisfying, old-fashioned romance.


Private detective Harry Dobbs (Tom Berenger) follows the gangster boyfriend of Miss Dolan (Anne Archer) and discovers that the man is keeping separate wives and separate lives, in Portland and on a Wyoming ranch (Annette O'Toole & Kate Capshaw). Unbeknownst to Harry, his own girlfriend Doris (Ann Magnuson) is convinced he's having an affair and has hired another private detective, Stella Wynowski (Elizabeth Perkins) to follow him. More complications, as they say, ensue.

Peppered with moody love songs ranging from the old standard You Don't Know What Love Is to Leonard Cohen's Ain't No Cure for Love, Love at Large is a favorite that not everybody warms up to. The comedy is muted, there's not very much detective action and the tone alternates from rainy Portland nightclubs to romantic intrigues on a wild west ranch. Harry Dobbs and Stella Wynkowski are both in the business of watching other people's relationships break up, while being unable to hold their own together.

Dobbs' clumsy attempts to smooth over his dealings with his shrill girlfriend Doris or his seductive client Miss Dolan prove Stella's claim that he's incompetent at affairs of the heart. Stella criticizes his detective style with the observation that he gets too close to his subjects. Dobbs blunders about, raising the suspicions of the prairie housewife (Capshaw) who herself has a lover on the side (Kevin J. O'Connor). His crude questioning also freaks out the other housewife (O'Toole) to the point that she breaks down and asks him, seriously, if he is the devil.

Then again, Stella over-empathizes with her subjects too. She intervenes decisively when danger threatens in Wyoming, but can't handle an old boyfriend (Barry Miller) who selfishly shows up and becomes abusive. Stella and Harry share a warm-hearted streak. They both have soft spots that make hash of their cases, while leading them directly to each other.

Love at Large probably goes in too many directions at once. There's a film noir-ish spur that makes Anne Archer into a fantasy love object to confuse Harry, who sees her in his dreams singing in a sultry voice. It's funny enough but becomes a little static after a while, and it depends on hero Harry Dobbs making some pretty silly mistakes.

The more satisfying material takes romance more seriously. Stella reads a book called The Love Manual and can't resist making soulful speeches about what it means to be in love, complete with the observation that "Those in love are the ones who wait." There's a nice tilt here toward seductive melancholy. Harry experiences an odd partial dream sequence in which the plain-wrap Stella confronts him wearing a Miss Dolan-like evening gown, transforming into the object of his desires.  1

Elliot Davis' dark photography gives Love at Large an intense look, and the contrast in the real locales (dawn in Portland, afternoon on the prairie) helps with the feeling that everyone in the story is living at least two lives at once. The music score employs some great guitar riffs to keep things moving in the many stalking scenes.

Career-wise, Tom Berenger kept missing the mark to hit stardom and this pleasing performance is probably too "soft" to suggest that he's a comedy natural. Elizabeth Perkins again convinces us she can play anything and still be adorable; too bad a string of blah roles (He Said, She Said) led her to the eventual doom of Wilma Flintstone. They have a couple of conversations on a plane and in a bar that evoke the warmth of older screwball comedies:

He: "I'm a detective. I'm very good at what I do."
She: "Fooled Me."

The supporting cast is always interesting. Anne Archer affects a breathy love-baby vulnerability that borders on spoofy parody. Still, her drop-dead gorgeous appeal convincingly scrambles Harry's brain and sets the crazy plot into motion. Ted Levine was concurrently playing as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs, which works in favor of the film establishing him as a possibly dangerous man. Kate Capshaw and Annette O'Toole have fine scenes in their isolated corners of the story. All of them are in love or trying to sort out their romantic problems, and Love at Large fashions them into a sympathetic ensemble that builds an overall feeling of romantic hope.

Others don't come off as well, only because their parts are too peripheral. Ann Magnuson is stuck with the thankless role of Harry's spiteful girlfriend. Kevin J. O'Connor's scenes are too brief and Barry Miller's character shows up too late to be anything more than an unwelcome annoyance.

The big surprise is Neil Young's brief but arresting stint as a gangster who has Harry beat up and threatens to kill Miss Dolan. His oddball casting meshes well with Rudolph's offbeat tone, and a brief punch-out in his swank apartment provides some welcome comedy.

The movie has four or five swear words but is otherwise family-friendly; the R rating seems completely unjustified.  2

MGM's DVD of Love at Large is a beauty. At first I heard it was going to be pan-scan only, but they've generously given us two transfers on a flipper disc. The A side is graced with a terrific enhanced version that brings out the film's rich colors in eye-popping clarity.

The smooth music track sounds great. The only extra is the clever trailer put together by Richard Smith and Harry Dunn. It makes good use of a Glenn Miller song to tease us on the movie's confusing plot, without giving away all the plot twists.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Love at Large rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 11, 2004


1. Savant cut television spots for Love at Large in 1990 and worked with a slightly longer work print of the picture. There's at least one more scene where Harry 'dreams' a vision of the be-gowned Stella appearing as a romantic vision in his room. There might be a similar one where an apparition of Harry materializes before Stella as well. As it is, what's left is just a moment where Stella is standing by a curtain, wearing the dress seen on the DVD cover illustration. The longer versions played rather awkwardly, as if the picture's whimsy had gone a bit too far. (spoiler) However, taking the dream scenes out lessens the impact of a final surprise: Stella hallucinates Harry in the room again, only to find out he's really there.

2. There's one shot of Neil Young in his apartment, standing before an abstract painting of a naked woman. For the trailer, the MPAA made us blur out the painting part of the scene, an alteration you can see on this DVD. Just amazing ... but the nation's morals were protected. You know, it's like a Super Bowl halftime show that can be 20 minutes of unadulterated raunch and suggestiveness. But Look Out! if something unexpected happens. One gland can launch a thousand little time-wasting repressions.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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