Love at Large

The impossibly glamorous Miss Dolan, played with slinky panache by Anne Archer, is enjoying a tête-à-tête with private detective Harry Dobbs (an unusually lively Tom Berenger) at a nightclub where people customarily do impossibly glamorous things. Miss Dolan, for example, has just ordered a Manhattan served in a champagne glass. She has also hired Dobbs to trail her roving lover boy Rick. "As long as I know what Rick is doing," she says, holding back her tears, "I have a life."

As long as you don't try to figure out what writer-director Alan Rudolph is doing with this needlessly bewildering mystery spoof, you should enjoy wallowing in the film's lush romanticism. Dobbs follows Rick (Ted Levine) from the suburban home he shares with his wife (Annette O'Toole) to the Oregon ranch he shares with his other wife (Kate Capshaw). The latter is not so devoted, judging from the hot looks she exchanges with a ranch hand (Kevin J. O'Connor). Rick may not even be Rick; he looks nothing like the guy, sharply acted by rocker Neil Young, who Miss Dolan keeps phoning.

In Rudolph's world, couples are uncoupled with daunting regularity. Dobbs's girlfriend (Ann Magnuson) is so jealous she hires a greenhorn detective, Stella (Elizabeth Perkins), to tail Dobbs while he's dogging the bigamist. Stella's not very good at the job, but she's built up a defense mechanism against men – thanks to her cretinous boyfriend (Barry Miller) – that withers Dobbs's amorous advances.

Just when everyone's shallowness starts to make you wince, Rudolph pulls the rug out. A sense of melancholy, heightened by Mark Isham's bluesy score, suffuses the film as the bruised lovers start showing their emotional scars. When Berenger and Perkins drop their sparring, they're winningly vulnerable. And Capshaw limns a touching portrait of an abused wife who's not going to take it anymore.

Rudolph's films can be insufferably coy (Made in Heaven) or merely picturesque (The Moderns), but at his best (Choose Me, Trouble in Mind) he can walk the tightrope between the rush of passion and the pain of its loss without losing his footing. Love at Large is Rudolph in top form – a seductive comic valentine enriched by style, feeling and splendid performances. It has a surprising kick, like that potent Manhattan in Miss Dolan's elegantly fragile champagne glass.