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Big Bad Love

A struggling, beer-chugging Mississippi writer estranged from his wife lives alone in a barely furnished house in the sticks. He deals with constant rejection from editors and with self-destructive demons that threaten to do him in until a tragic event and some good luck come his way.


Vietnam vet Leon Barlow is going through a terrible patch. His bitter separation from wife Marilyn resulted in a restraining order, and he sees his kids, Alan and Alisha, only occasionally. His writing career is definitely in question because, day after day, returned manuscripts and rejection letters arrive in his mailbox. Still, Leon manages to tap out prose in the shabby house he shares with a mangy mutt in a rural Mississippi outpost. Leon's best pal, Monroe, throws him a painting job now and then but is little more than a drinking buddy. Their mutual friend Velma is fun to party with at local dives but is more Monroe's lady. Leon's carousing lands him in jail and a stint in community service after a near-fatal car accident. A terrible family tragedy sobers him up, but the big turning point for Leon arrives in the form of an unexpected letter from a long-supportive editor.


Arliss Howard, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, turns in a muscular, if familiar, performance as the tormented writer. A logical comparison is Ed Harris' recent interpretation of Jackson Pollock, an artist similarly bedeviled. But Leon's devils are a mystery--so much so that one wonders: What is this guy's problem? Still, Howard has the pervasive angst and southern drawl down pat and convinces as a loser aching to be a winner. Paul Le Mat as pal Monroe is fine as the inconsequential, but sweet, yokel, but Rosanna Arquette as Velma has little to do except look pretty. For reasons unknown, Howard's real-life wife, Debra Winger, who plays onscreen wife Marilyn, left her southern drawl somewhere under the kudzu. Whereas all the other characters ring true of Mississippi roots, Winger somehow feels flown in from parts unknown. Also in a brief role, Angie Dickinson as Leon's mother makes a very welcome return to the big screen. Sigourney Weaver lends some relief and her voice as an unseen editor.


Director Howard, co-adapting with his brother from short stories by Larry Brown, has slapped on enough style for three films, to the extent that

Big Bad Love too often makes no sense. Worse, whatever the story is here (surely it's more than that writers get lucky if they wait long enough) is lost. Howard, making his directorial debut, resorts to loads (overloads) of flashy devices: cryptic montages, fantasy sequences, solemn fade-outs, noisy soundtrack flourishes, etc. Such directorial ''virtuosity'' not only saps the narrative drive but also robs the characters of the much-needed dimensions that make them real, recognizable and compelling. Also, with so much style crushing so little substance, it's just not clear at all at several important junctures what the heck is going on.

Bottom Line

Like its writer/hero, the movie itself is bedeviled. Besides the familiar cliches of the tormented artist, Big Bad Love is also beset by stylistic excess that further crushes and enfeebles this drama about a struggling Mississippi writer also battling personal problems. Whether the script or the direction is to blame, Arliss Howard, who had a hand at both, must take much of the rap. Still, Big Bad Love is a handsome, forceful production in which Howard allows himself some showy, brawny moments.