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Read past reviews by the Film Gang

Big Bad Love
reviewed by Dennis Morton

There's a scene in "Big Bad Love" reminiscent of a passage in Campbell Armstrong's "I Hope You Have A Good Life". Armstrong's bio/memoir tells the story of his ex-wife, Eileen. When she was 16, and unmarried, she gave birth to a daughter. Her parents forced her to give up the child for adoption. Forty years later, as Eileen lay dying of lung cancer, the daughter, after decades of searching, tracked Eileen down, and they were reunited. The daughter, too, was dying of cancer. Together, the daughter and Eileen began to make notes for a book. But Eileen realized she'd never finish it. She asked Campbell to write it, for her. 
     
"Big Bad Love", the movie, is the story of a man consumed by two addictions - alcohol and writing. One of the most moving moments in the film involves a request to write the story of a brain-injured man whose life
will otherwise be forgotten. The request is made by the injured man's wife.  It's a beautifully executed scene that lasts no more than two or three minutes. At first it appears that the wife may be making a pass at the protagonist/writer, but she's actually just acrobatically exchanging seats with the writer, putting him literally in the driver's seat of the pick-up truck they're cruising in. It's a scene packed with good acting, good writing, and good direction. And it serves as a powerful metaphor. The writer is being offered an opportunity for redemption and recovery.
     
Not only this scene, but in some important aspects, the lives of Armstrong, a dear friend of mine, and that of the fictional Leon Barlow, played by Arliss Howard, in the movie, resemble each other.
     
"Big Bad Love", the movie, is an act of love by Arliss Howard and Debra Winger, real life partners who were taken with Larry Brown's recent collection of short stories, of the same title. I haven't read Brown's latest collection, but I have read several stories from his first book. Brown is not a feel-good writer. His characters are locked in the nitty-gritty. They struggle to survive. Many seek a feckless refuge in the swamp of alcohol. Arliss directed, co-wrote the script, and stars in the movie. Winger produced it and plays the alcoholic writer's estranged wife. 
     
The movie's structure is a composite of the quotidian and surreal. The story is told mostly from the writer's point of view. And at any moment he's apt to transmogrify the reality before him into a torrent of words. But the words are often breath-taking, and I must confess that on that account alone, I intend to revisit "Big Bad Love" many times over. At the same time, I recognize that charm and talent do not a good man make. It's fair to say that Howard's character, Leon Barlow (an imperfect anagram of Larry Brown) has failed many of life's most important tests. Those who find it difficult to commiserate with selfish rascals will have a hard time loving the main character. Many critics I admire, among them, A.O. Scott and Roger Ebert, see the movie as an uncritical homage to a morally bankrupt, booze besotted, wanna be big time writer. Barlow is that, but in my eyes, more. Like the stories I've read of Larry Brown, there is no resolution, at east on-screen. But there are intimations of redemption. 
     
For all it's non-linear narrative style, replete with surreal intrusions designed to mirror the alcohol-driven imaginings of the protagonist, "Big Bad Love" does not foreclose the possibility of personal growth for Leon
Barlow. Listen attentively and you can hear it in snippets of voice-overs as the film rounds the final turn, and observe the possibility in subtly suggestive scenes. 
     
Maligned by unsympathetic reviews, I fear that "Big Bad Love" will be consigned before its time to the racks of your favorite video store. But I liked this movie, a lot. It's full of good writing and good acting. You don't have to love the main character to like a move. I urge you to catch it on the big screen, while you can. "Big Bad Love" is playing at The Nickelodeon, in downtown Santa Cruz.
     
For KUSP's Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

Copyright Dennis Morton  2002