There's a lot of thick, chewy dialogue in the new film "Big Bad Love" and enough alcohol and cigarettes to make your clothes smell. There's enough small town Mississippi for Californians to reconsider the true meaning of laid-back, and a healthy pinch of hill country blues to keep the soundtrack playing in your head. And there are actors you haven't seen in awhile and forgot how much you liked, including Debra Winger, Paul LeMat and Angie Dickinson. The film was written, directed by and stars Arliss Howard, an actor known, if at all, for small roles in big movies. He is in virtually every scene in this film, playing a struggling Mississippi writer named Leon Barlow. Howard adapted the screenplay from the short story collection of real-life Mississippi writer Larry Brown. The whole project drips with authenticity and the earnest attention given to labors of love.
So why was I shocked upon leaving the theater to discover that only one hundred and eleven minutes had actually passed? I'm not sure. It's either the molasses thickness of daily life in small town Mississippi. Or the fact that this is a film about an aspiring writer who occasionally paints houses to pay the bills. So not only are there lots of scenes that attempt to portray a writer's internal struggle, there are actually scenes of watching paint dry.
But I'm a patient man. Heck, if I care about the house, I'll watch paint dry. No, I think the point where "Big Bad Love" started to lose me was when I realized that everyone was going to continue speaking like a character in a short story. Even poets don't speak in poetry, and when every passing character has nothing but soulful reflection coming out of his or her mouth it feels like licking a book. I begin to picture the writer, I can see him pulling the strings. And I don't like to be doing that during a moving picture show.
Technically "Big Bad Love" it is the story of a man who is unhappily separated from his wife and kids, who is old enough to be a Vietnam war vet, but still given to drunken teenage joy rides with his buddy. Leon Barlow looks to the bottle for temporary escape and to his typewriter for a more permanent one. He will face tragic consequences and be allowed to find healing resolutions. He's a good enough man that no one will abandon him, no matter how tempting it might be. Arliss Howard, the Director sees a sexy, smoldering, hard-living integrity in Leon Barlow. Arliss Howard, the Actor, was obviously on the same page. And who is autobiographical writer Larry Brown to argue? "Big Bad Love" is a wee self-indulgent that way.
Toward the end of the film there's a snippet of Tom Waits on the soundtrack, and it occured to me that Waits could have told this entire story in three minutes, and you could have enjoyed a drink and a cigarette along with it. Or if you have the time and are feeling especially literary, you could just read the book.
© 2002 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 04/02
Big Bad Love
US - 2001