“Divorce: A Contemporary Western” (1998), “Twisted Love” (1995)

“Divorce: A Contemporary Western” is a 1998 ensemble drama starring a number of talented character actors: Elias Koteas (of “CSI: NY”), Christopher McDonald (Shooter McGavin in “Happy Gilmore”), Wendie Malick (from “Just Shoot Me” as well as the classic HBO show “Dream On”), Denise Crosby (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) and Terry Kiser (the dead guy in “Weekend at Bernie’s”). Written and directed by Eb Lottimer (an actor who mostly appeared in schlocky 1980s and ’90s movies like “Stripped to Kill II: Live Girls” and “Bloodfist VII: Manhunt”), the movie turns out to be an intriguing breed of failure; it’s an exercise that doesn’t work, ultimately, but it’s certainly more compelling than its awful, misleading title implies.

Based on Lottimer’s nasty split with TV star Mary Crosby (she shot J.R. on “Dallas”), “Divorce” is by no means a western (though it is set at a Californian ranch), nor is it particularly contemporary (though there is some discussion of modern horrors like sexually transmitted diseases). You keep waiting for it to explode, but–aside from a scene in which Crosby and Koteas vent about their domestic problems and then, for therapeutic purposes, start screaming like banshees–the movie remains frustratingly sleepy and restrained. The key problem might be the setting itself: the main character is a horse trainer, so the majority of scenes are set in dimly lit stables or along horse paths overlooking sweeping vistas, about as peaceful and secluded and as far from the world of divorce court as you can get. The worst the characters ever seem is slightly lonely.

Furthermore, the casting of Koteas in the lead role is disastrous. What makes Koteas so fun to watch (even in junk like “Look Who’s Talking Too”) is his knack for conveying the surprisingly humane side of short-fuse creeps. He’s usually introduced in films as a menace, then slowly revealed to be a laid-back guy  (in “Some Kind of Wonderful,” for example, he’s an intimidating skinhead, a knife-carrying punk, that winds up befriending and defending the film’s nerdy hero). It’s the wounded anger in his simmering eyes and twitching eyebrows, the DeNiro-esque pout and scowl, that make him compelling. But Koteas is incapable of conveying lighthearted bliss, and so in the opening scene of “Divorce,” which is meant to set up the cozy domesticity of his marriage to Malick, he already seems ill-at-ease and tormented. He gives his wife a horse, and she’s delighted, but the scene, intended to be romantic, is darkly lit and ominous; the horse appears frighteningly larger-than-life, a bull-in-the-china-shop figure of doom. You keep expecting Koteas to pull out a knife and kill Malick, or kill the horse.

In the next scene, we’re in the ugly present, with Malick and Koteas squabbling and cursing at each other, and you start seeing the slow-burn anger of Koteas’ character. But this, too, is never fleshed out. For the rest of the film, Koteas is a near-silent mope, and he becomes a sort-of sounding board for his equally miserable friends’ marital traumas. It’s commendable that Lottimer saw a range in Koteas that he wanted to capitalize on, and that Koteas tried out a new style, but it’s not one that fits. It isn’t particularly interesting to watch Koteas play a doormat, especially in a film this listlessly shot and produced.

So the pleasures of “Divorce” turn out to be subsidiary. The screaming scene with Crosby (whose husband, McDonald, has succumbed to heroin abuse and affairs with porn stars) is a campy, irrelevant, drama-class exercise, but amusing nonetheless. McDonald, a bulky, jocular presence, looks fundamentally ridiculous playing a slobbering, bed-ridden junkie (sadly, his trysts with the porn stars are kept entirely off-camera). Funniest of all is Kiser, who plays a high-powered corporate lawyer (the only urban scene is shot at his office) and a secret gun nut. He scares his wife (Talia Shire, playing yet another scared woman) half to death with his outbursts, yet inconceivably, she keeps deciding to stay with him; you’d think, from the half-hearted way she complains about Kiser to Koteas, that her only issue with him is that he forgets to take out the trash. Kiser provides a long-overdue jolt of energy in the film’s second half. And Beverly D’Angelo (who chose to remain uncredited) is sexy as a fellow rancher that Koteas shacks up with.

Certainly Lottimer assembled enough talent–and must have been feeling enough pain, himself–to make a powerhouse film, but “Divorce” isn’t that film. It’s certainly a bizarre kind of failure, though, and better than plenty of other straight-to-video fodder you see on Netflix. (The film’s only theatrical release, as far as I can tell, was at the Temecula Film Festival in 1998). Since then, Lottimer has directed a TV series (“Good Time Golf”) and settled in New Mexico, where (according to an on-line bulletin I stumbled upon) he’s attempting to put on his play, “Your Aura is Throbbing.” He runs a film company called Ebaline Films, which is in the process of producing several films, including one about Tupac Shakur. He’s also an acting teacher.

Lottimer only directed one film prior to “Divorce,” a truly awful rip-off of “Misery” called “Twisted Love.” Happily, he did not pen the script, though he might be responsible for the slow-motion, sideways-angle pretensions of the murder scenes.

Produced by the unstoppable schlockmeister Roger Corman, “Twisted Love” is notable only for the embarrassed performance by “Saved by the Bell” star Mark-Paul Gosselaar. He’s not even the lead actor–that honor goes to Sasha Jenson, a floppy-haired hybrid of Craig Sheffer and Buster Poindexter–but from the depressed, barely audible way he reads his two or three lines, you’d think he would have preferred seventh billing or no billing at all. Even in his chaste sex scene with a blonde floozie (who’s never seen again), Gosselaar appears enervated to the point of inertia. In a 1998 interview with The Onion’s AV Club, Gosselaar, asked about “Twisted Love,” responded: “You had to bring that one up, didn’t you? I don’t even know the title of the movie. That’s how bad it was….I love when guys come up to me and they’re like, ‘Dude, we saw you in this sci-fi thing. You suck.’ And then you have to explain yourself: ‘I did it for the money. I wasn’t stable at that time. My agent told me not to do it, but I did it.'”

“Twisted Love” is about a motorcycle-riding high school jock (Jenson) with a cute girlfriend (Soleil Moon Frye) and a crazed, sunhat-wearing stalker (Lisa Dean Ryan). As in “Misery,” she observes his vehicle smash-up one night, pulls him into her parents’ mansion, hides him away in the bedroom, drugs him when he tries to escape, screams dopey things at him when he rebuffs her (“I’ll gobble up your friggin’ face!”) and, of course, axes and stabs and shoots anyone that gets in her way (including her molesting father). Some of her weapons of destruction are admittedly inspired; a pie slicer, a bucket of boiling hot soapy water. And in the funniest sequence, she forces Jenson to study for the SATs so that they can both get into the same elite college (“Name some antonyms!” she yells, to which he replies: “Good. And evil. Wrong. And right. You. And me.”)

The movie received a limited California-only release, and the sole review I could find was by former “Drive-in Movie Critic” Joe Bob Briggs, who actually liked the thing; “I believe this girl more than I believed [Kathy] Bates,” he wrote in a December 1995 San Francisco Chronicle review. It’s available only on VHS.

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