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'Big Bad Love'

'Big Bad Love' wallows in struggling writer's self-pity

Friday, April 26, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Big Bad Love," now at the Squirrel Hill Theater, is the kind of movie in which the lead character screws up because that's what he does and someone chews him out like yesterday's plug and the movie cuts to a full shot and it's raining buckets on him even though he's sitting indoors and everything else is dry. And the shot cuts to outside and the water comes flooding out the doors and down the front steps.

 
 
'BIG BAD LOVE'

RATING: R for language and some sexuality.

STARRING: Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Paul Le Mat, Rosanna Arquette.

DIRECTOR: Arliss Howard.

Critic's call:

   
 

Now, it's not exactly the redneck "Ally McBeal," but "Big Bad Love" does spend way too much time externalizing what goes on inside the often inebriated brain of Leon Barlow (Arliss Howard, who is also the movie's director).

Leon has many faults, the worst of which is the compulsion to write. He types away like a demon at his portable typewriter, of the same approximate vintage and condition as his Mississippi house, which looks like it hasn't seen a housekeeper since Foghorn Leghorn was an egg. Not so coincidentally, "Big Bad Love" was adapted by Howard and his brother, James, from a book of short stories by Larry Brown, a Mississippi firefighter turned author.

Leon mails his stories out in droves, and they come back in manila, each containing another rejection slip to use as bathroom wallpaper. So Leon smokes too much and drinks too much and keeps ticking off his ex-wife, Marilyn (Debra Winger, who is married to Howard in real life), and takes the occasional house-painting job with his buddy Monroe (Paul Le Mat).

And that's pretty much all that happens, except Leon keeps digging himself a bigger hole and, sooner or later, other people start falling into it with tragic results. But we're supposed to forgive him his trespasses and feel sorry for him because there's an artist in him struggling to get out, which has been an excuse for rationalizing selfish, boorish behavior probably since Homer was something other than a Simpson.

It helps that we can see a glint of intelligence underneath that scruffy exterior -- but not enough to make up for Howard's self-indulgent direction of his portrayal of an equally self-indulgent man. He keeps insisting on arty shots, such as the indoor rainstorm or insisting on having Monroe watch TV sideways on Leon's porch, reclining so that it's easier -- sort of -- to prop the set on its side. It's not like we won't find out more directly that these two see things a bit askew.

After a while, Howard throws out so many fantasy sequences from Leon's imagination that we start to lose track of what's real and what isn't. That may be OK for David Lynch but, then again, even for him it doesn't work most of the time. Howard serves only to make us feel like we've been drinking along with Leon, which is hardly an attractive proposition.

We sympathize with Marilyn as Winger, coming out of a self-imposed retirement after nearly seven years, shows us both the woman's disgust with Leon and the fact that, deep down, she still loves him. Le Mat, once a fine actor who has done little of consequence in the past 15 years, makes Monroe more conscious of others than Leon but no more able to deal with them. Rosanna Arquette plays her typical wild child, a woman who falls for Monroe.

Considering how long it has been since some of these people have appeared in a major film role, perhaps it's appropriate that "Big Bad Love" turns out to be about second chances and, in a way, about chasing ghosts. If only we could be sure that they're not just another of Leon's flights of fancy -- or Howard's.

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