Theres a scene halfway
through Big Bad Love where Leon Barlow (Arliss
Howard) sitswrapped in a bedsheeton his farmhouses
front porch sipping a cup of coffee as the sun dawns on
a new day. Seems idyllic doesnt it? It is if you
havent seen the first hour of the film. Leon is
an unemployed, unpublished writer, and hes just
capped off a rip-roaring weekend bender. So, whats
great about this porch scene? Nothing, actually. But,
its the first timeof manywhere I thought:
"It sure doesnt look bad to be a struggling writer
The movie is adapted from
a collection of short stories (Big Bad Love) written
by Larry Brown. The old adage, write what you know applies
for Brown; both he and his fictional offspring hail from
Mississippi; both served in the Armed Service; both struggled
before making their literary name. To Howards credit
the nuances of southern-writer seem dead on accurate.
By nuances I mean Howards drawl, his spitfire temper
but laid back approach. However, the first crack in the
films authenticity is Howards physique. Writers
dont have bodies like flyweight boxers.
Barlow is an alcoholictypical
of nearly every writer portrayed on the screenand
his Mississippi life is a living nightmare. His best friend
is a millionaire rabble-rouser, Monroe (Paul Le Mat),
who he peruses the local haunts with before passing out
in his single bed, or in a few instances, his bathtub.
His relationship with his ex-wife is strained. He has
two kids; the youngest, the daughter, has a medical condition.
He and Monroe paint houses for income. He churns out the
pages by the dozen but his mailbox is stuffed, daily,
Almost all of Barlows
pain comes from his divorce. Although, aside from a flashback,
where the 8mm movie of his wedding day runs backwardswe
are given nothing of his relationship with Marilyn (Debra
Winger). Barlow has the capacity for passion/feeling but
theres a disconnect between his heart and soul.
In the attempt to fuse them (and his marriage) back together,
he escapes into his fertile imagination, which intensifies
his pain, thus he hoses down the whole mess with beer.
of portraying Barlow with a stifling, if not debilitating
exterior lifeHoward (as director) has chosen to
glamorize the writing life by relying on and exploiting
every known writer cliché. This happens in most
movies featuring the protagonist as a writer. Yes, there
are many writer movies out there. To name just a few:
John Mahoneys WP in Barton Fink (who is purposely
a stereotypethose clever Coen Bros.), Patrick Dempseys
lead character in Happy Together, Mickey Rourke
in Barfly, and more recently, Colin Hanks' character
in Orange County. Granted, the two teen movies
avoid the alcoholism trope, still both are unable to balance
their inner-selves with the exterior world.
Has the writer-protagonist
become a stock character for any/all movies wanting to
portray an artist out of touch with their sensibilities?
Show the audience a writer and automatically they see:
1. Searcher 2. Untapped passion 3. Pain, and thus by stereotype
baggage alone the director is excused from spending twenty
minutes of a films precious 145 setting up the protagonists
plight. Barlow, of course, is all of the above: searcher;
fighter (with persistence greater than Phillip Marlow
and a body like Sugar Ray Leonard). Hes up to his
neck with extraordinary pain (divorced, rejected, sick
kid)but the movie skips across the surface of these,
using them only as touchstones of Barlows miserable
PAIN/BAD LIFE is the equation Big Bad Love tries
so valiantly to portray, but mong all the drinking, carousing,
bathtub passing out, failing family relationships, irresponsibility,
sick child, unemploymentall of which is played over
a sound track by R.L. Burnside and Tom Waitswhat
we see best is Barlows fertile imagination. This
is the one innovative and wonderful success of the film.
Jay Rabinowitzs (Homicide: Life on the Street,
Requiem for a Dream")
dexterous editing stitches together Leons internal
vision like a bizarre-surreal-magical-realism hootenanny
of clown masks, railroad cars, water filled houses, and
Nam flashbacks. It saves the film from being trite
writer escaping his demons to writer escaping his demons
with MTVesque editing.
The acting nearly saves
the film, too. Debra Winger, Patricia Arquette, and Paul
Le Man are all very good at rounding out Howards
world. But its not enough.
In the end, Big Bad
Love romanticizes what would otherwise seem an ugly
and horrid life. I have the suspicion that I was suppose
to feel, and maybe even shed a tear, as I watched Barlow
struggle with his pain, waiting for his break. It made
me, instead, want to move to Mississippithe writing
life down there doesnt seem too bad.