Arliss Howard's Big Bad Love
By Ryan Bartelmay

There’s a scene halfway through Big Bad Love where Leon Barlow (Arliss Howard) sits—wrapped in a bedsheet—on his farmhouse’s front porch sipping a cup of coffee as the sun dawns on a new day. Seems idyllic doesn’t it? It is if you haven’t seen the first hour of the film. Leon is an unemployed, unpublished writer, and he’s just capped off a rip-roaring weekend bender. So, what’s great about this porch scene? Nothing, actually. But, it’s the first time—of many—where I thought: "It sure doesn’t look bad to be a struggling writer in Mississippi."

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 Howard’s credit the nuances of southern-writer seem dead on accurate. By nuances I mean Howard’s drawl, his spitfire temper but laid back approach. However, the first crack in the film’s authenticity is Howard’s physique. Writers don’t have bodies like flyweight boxers.

Barlow is an alcoholic—typical of nearly every writer portrayed on the screen—and 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, with rejections.

Almost all of Barlow’s pain comes from his divorce. Although, aside from a flashback, where the 8mm movie of his wedding day runs backwards—we are given nothing of his relationship with Marilyn (Debra Winger). Barlow has the capacity for passion/feeling but there’s 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.

Unfortunately, instead of portraying Barlow with a stifling, if not debilitating exterior life—Howard (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 Mahoney’s WP in Barton Fink (who is purposely a stereotype—those clever Coen Bros.), Patrick Dempsey’s 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 film’s precious 145 setting up the protagonist’s plight. Barlow, of course, is all of the above: searcher; fighter (with persistence greater than Phillip Marlow and a body like Sugar Ray Leonard). He’s 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 Barlow’s miserable life.

PAIN+IMAGINATION+BEER=MORE 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, unemployment—all of which is played over a sound track by R.L. Burnside and Tom Waits—what we see best is Barlow’s fertile imagination. This is the one innovative and wonderful success of the film. Jay Rabinowitz’s (Homicide: Life on the Street, Requiem for a Dream") dexterous editing stitches together Leon’s 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 Howard’s world. But it’s 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 Mississippi—the writing life down there doesn’t seem too bad.