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Being Leon Barlow

Big Bad Love spends two hours inside a writer's tortured mind

The last thing most rookie movie directors would -- or should -- try to do is crawl inside the fertile, chaotic mind of an impoverished, drunken Southern writer, then throw the whole interior mess up there on the screen: the poor bastard's twisted poetic fantasies and occasional bolts of insight, his grieving for a lost wife and a sick child, his hilarious rage over a drawerful of rejection slips, even the war nightmares he endures thanks to a big-league case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Most rookie directors would balk at such a package, but not Arliss Howard.

As an actor, Howard has over the years worked with some one-of-a-kind filmmakers -- Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick, for starters -- and their assorted rebellions have clearly rubbed off on him. As a result, Howard's Big Bad Love explodes with brave ambition while falling a little short, perhaps, on traditional narrative sense. So be it. If devotees of the cinematic art and the independent spirit were willing to slide down a tunnel into John Malkovich's head a couple of years back, there's no reason we should balk at banging around for a while inside one Leon Barlow (played by Howard himself, of course), a disturbed Mississippi novelist who comes equipped with sorrows, a vivid imagination, a snootful of bourbon and a taste for beat-up outlaw blues singers such as R.L. Burnside and the late Asie Payton (who bring glory to this soundtrack).

Barlow is the alter ego of an actual Mississippi novelist named Larry Brown, a Vietnam vet and ex-fireman who published his first stories in 1988 and is now the author of four novels, including Dirty Work and, most recently, Billy Ray's Farm. Without fear -- without much sense, some would say -- Howard has waded into Brown's early, highly autobiographical fiction and come out the other side with a film that chronicles the making of a writer, the way he turns the raw material of his life and his dreams into fiction while coming to grips with the varieties of love -- romantic, filial, parental, aesthetic. It's a tall order, but any movie that dares to imagine a rejected husband crawling over the lawn at his wife's house in the guise of a scared infantryman on night patrol cannot be all bad. Neither can a movie featuring a drunk who, when stopped by the police, grabs the cop and starts doing the tango with him, and a depressed writer who must retrieve his typewriter from a briar patch. As for Barlow's replies to the many publishers who've rejected his work, what could be more eloquent than "Dear Motherfucker: You spineless cretin ..."?

Olivia Kersey and Arliss Howard in Big Bad Love
Olivia Kersey and Arliss Howard in Big Bad Love

Howard's collaborators in this constantly touching, surprisingly funny, semisurrealist exploration of the creative act include his younger brother, James Howard, a Kansas City poet with two previously unproduced screenplays in the drawer; Howard's wife, Debra Winger, who, after several years away from the cameras, puts in a nicely shaded performance as Leon's estranged spouse, Marilyn; American Graffiti's Paul Le Mat, who plays Barlow's loyal, witty friend and war buddy, Monroe; and Rosanna Arquette as the love of Monroe's life, a feisty funeral-home heiress named Velma. There's also Angie Dickinson, burnished and still strikingly beautiful, as Leon's skeptical mother, complete with afternoon cocktail and Mercedes-Benz sedan.

"I swear," Velma tells Leon, "Nothin's real to you 'cept what's in your head." For better or worse -- mostly better -- we find ourselves in there with him for a couple of hours, reinventing ourselves, too.

 
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