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Big Bad Love (2001)
Big Bad Love is a 2001 film directed by Arliss Howard, who co-wrote the script with his brother, James Howard, based on a collection of short stories of the same name by Larry Brown. The story recounts an episode in the life of an alcoholic Vietnam veteran and struggling writer named Leon Barlow, who is played by Arliss Howard, and his wife, played by Howard's wife Debra Winger. The soundtrack includes music by Tom Verlaine, the Kronos Quartet, and R. L. Burnside. Big Bad Love shares its title and characters with those in Mississippi writer Larry Brown's short story collection, particularly those in the book's final story, "92 Days". The main character is an unsuccessful alcoholic writer, motivated by desire for his estranged wife (played by Debra Winger) and the urging of his Vietnam War buddy Monroe (played by Paul Le Mat) to continue to write. He is angry, yet hopeful that he will sell a story. When tragedy strikes a close friend and his daughter, Leon is forced to rethink his way of life. New York Times reviewer By A. O.
Leon is a shiftless alcoholic, though obviously still a talented writer with his mixture of adjective clauses and ability to envelop anyone around him into an environment he is describing. He's separated from his wife (Debra Winger) with whom he had two children, and he has difficulty playing the part of father, even as he tries to win back his ex-wife's affections.
For his feature debut as director, Howard impressively mixes fantasy sequences with the depressing reality of pushing creativity as hard as you can against a tide of guilt. These false images are not only enticing to watch in their extremity about desiring what you can't have but are also well-paced, following along with the increasing effects of the beer Leon can't stop chugging. They compliment the overall story in their unpredictability and specificity to his wily imagination, instead of creating easily recognizable dream images that would be universal to the entire human race.
An emotional missed opportunity in the construction of the film is that only by reading the synopsis do you discover that Leon is a Vietnam veteran. There is exactly one line of dialogue (and no added visuals) that mentions he saved the life of his best friend. It would have been easier to attach more sympathy to Leon's continually misguided, failing attempts at connection if this piece of information were revealed. We all feel for those who have encountered war, but we don't necessarily care about someone who is always drinking to escape the fact that he still fantasizes about his ex and that his literary genius hasn't yet been recognized.
Another weakness is that, though Arliss Howard is an under-appreciated actor, having worked with such famed directors as Spielberg and Kubrick, there are far too many repetitive close-ups of his face. How many times do we need to see him harried, or with an expression that shouts, 'I know this is wrong, but I'm going to do it anyway'? The poignant, everyday squabbles portrayed throughout the course of the narrative are strong enough examples of his character's growth potential without punctuating a moment with a shot of his expressive face. It never becomes a nauseating vanity piece like Mel Gibson's The Man Without a Face, but it does distract attention at key moments.
What is wonderfully rare about Big Bad Love is its use of the human penchant for failure. Most dramas set up overwhelming obstacles that are cured miraculously or arguments that are suddenly forgotten, but Love doesn't let anyone get away easily from the hurt they inflict on others, no matter how accidental.
Big Bad Love is a respectable mix of piercing human frailty, the tricks your mind plays on you, and the unexpected blows to the ego that force separation and reconciliation.