The writer-director Alan Rudolph is capable of creating self-enclosed universes that clock to the metronome of his own private dream-time. He has such an intuitive grasp of the more ethereal reaches of the film medium that his movies--at least his "personal" ones, like "Choose Me" and "Trouble in Mind" and "The Moderns"--appear to be unmediated registrations of his muse. For better and for worse, these movies are unmistakably his .
Rudolph's new film "Love at Large" (throughout San Diego County) exhibits many of his trademark virtues and faults. It has a wonderful premise but little "follow through." The performers are fascinatingly cracked but, finally, wispy. The atmosphere, full of existential wheeziness and film noir shadowing, is overpoweringly inauthentic.
"Love at Large" is, of course, authentic to Rudolph's own vision, but it's not a vision I particularly care for--or have been made to care for. There's a self-indulgent languorousness to the worst of Rudolph that's so woozy and chichi that it's practically an affront.
Still, you can't dismiss Rudolph at his best, and about half of "Love at Large" is effective in ways that perhaps only he could have brought off. Harry Dobbs (Tom Berenger) is a scruffy, mediocre private detective hired by a sultry shady lady (Anne Archer) to tail her lover. He ends up mistakenly tailing another man (Ted Levine) who perfectly matches the lover's ID and, in the process, discovers he's being followed by another private eye, the equally inept Stella Wynkowski (Elizabeth Perkins), whom Harry's volatile girlfriend (Ann Magnuson) has set upon him.
The fascination of this premise is that the man Harry is following turns out to have a secret life. It's as if Rudolph was saying that, chosen at random, anybody's life is ultimately a mystery--a story. It's a thematic variation on the famous opening shot in "Psycho," with the camera randomly picking out a window in an apartment building, as if the lives of any of the apartment's other inhabitants could yield up an equally curdling tale. The Chinese-box spy-within-spy scenario reinforces the movie's free-floating ambiguousness. The world of "Love at Large," a vaguely Pacific Northwest-like never-never land, is one in which you never know if you are the spy or the one being spied upon, or both.
Rudolph chooses not to employ this plot for its melodramatic-existential charge. Its pulp possibilities are jettisoned in favor of something more vague and more weird, and more sentimental too. The movie turns into a fantasia on themes from \o7 film noir \f7 classics, and Rudolph applies to these themes his familiar high-art varnish. He locates the soft romantic heart in pulp crime fiction. Harry Dobbs--is his name a nod to Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs?--recognizes in Stella a soul mate. It's not just that both spies are incompetent. On some wispy, preconscious level, they both understand the joke of their existence. They are detectives, hired to root out other people's mysteries, who can't divine the mysteries of their own lives.
Rudolph is unusual among directors of such rarefied sensibility in that he has a genuine love of actors. Berenger is marvelously hangdog here, like a dreamier version of Elliott Gould's Philip Marlowe in Altman's "The Long Goodbye." Perkins has the ability to seem wised-up and dazed in the same moment, a requisite Rudolph combo. She's charming. In cameos, Annette O'Toole and Kate Capshaw, as the mystery man's women, are intense and striking, as if, at any moment, the film could run with their lives and we'd stay enthralled.
By making explicit the romanticism in \o7 film noir\f7 , Rudolph, I think, devalues it. The ardor of the genre was always in the stylistics, the mood, much more than in the ostensible scenarios. The most romantic \o7 films noir \f7 often featured no love stories at all.
The lovelorn confab between Harry and Stella seems facetious, particularly since it's tricked up with inexplicably wacky touches: Harry speaks in a comically gruff voice, like a Sunday-morning TV cartoon character; Stella is given to reading, on the sly, trashy how-to love manuals. It's cornball mysticism, and ultimately at the service of an ah-sweet-mystery-of-love message. When Anne Archer's character belts out a bluesy version of "You Don't Know What Love Is," the luscious camera moves are at the service of a mock-satiric conception. We're cued to respond to the passion, the "truth," of her words even as we're meant to laugh. Is there any other film maker who can combine in such hefty quantity stylistic sophistication and adolescent mooniness?
'LOVE AT LARGE'
An Orion Pictures Corp. release. Producer David Blocker. Director/screenplay Alan Rudolph. Cinematography Elliot Davis. Music Mark Isham. Production design Steven Legler. Costumes Ingrid Ferrin. With Tom Berenger, Anne Archer, Elizabeth Perkins, Kate Capshaw, Annette O'Toole, Ted Levine, Ann Magnuson.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
MPAA-rated: R (under 17 must be accompanied by parent or adult guardian.)