Elias Koteas (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)
Christopher McDonald (Stargate Universe)
Terry Kiser (Lois & Clark)
Wendie Malick (Waiting…)
Denise Crosby (Star Trek: TNG)
Prscilla Barnes (Jane The Virgin)
Ray Laska (Lost Voyage)
Talia Shire (Rocky)
Enrico Colantoni (Veronica Mars)
“Divorce: A Contemporary Western” is a 1998 ensemble drama starring a number of talented character actors: Elias Koteas, Christopher McDonald, Wendie Malick , Denise Crosby and Terry Kiser. 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.