About 90 minutes into Arliss Howard's two-hour adaptation of Larry Brown's short story collection, Big Bad Love, the movie it's been promising to be all along suddenly appears. For a brief moment, everything clicks: The weary grief of the central character suddenly seems immediate and terrifyingly real, and you're tempted to forgive Howard his extraordinary...read more
About 90 minutes into Arliss Howard's two-hour adaptation of Larry Brown's short story collection, Big Bad Love, the movie it's been promising to be all along suddenly appears. For a brief moment, everything clicks: The weary grief of the central character suddenly seems immediate and terrifyingly real, and you're tempted to forgive Howard his extraordinary self-indulgence. Then, as quickly as it came, it all disappears. The screenplay, co-written by Howard and his brother, Paul, pulls together elements from several stories in Brown's book, but draws most heavily on "92 Days," a novella about struggling southern writer Leon Barlow (played here by Howard), whose foundering career is matched only by his disastrous personal life. Each morning, the postman stuffs his mailbox with returned manuscripts. Leon's bathroom wall is papered with rejection letters, and the restraining order his ex-wife, Marilyn (Debra Winger, Howard's real-life wife), has taken out on him keeps Leon at a hundred yards from her and their two kids (Zach Moody, Olivia Kersey). Determined to become a writer, Leon picks up a few extra bucks working odd jobs lined up by his independently wealthy best friend, Monroe (Paul Le Mat). Monroe, who has a crush on the ditzy daughter (Rosanna Arquette) of the town undertaker, is also something of a guardian angel: He once saved Leon's life in Vietnam, and now makes his broke friend's child support payments on the sly. Together, Leon and Monroe drink beer, paint houses, tool around the back roads of rural Mississippi and get sloshed at Cindy's roadhouse while drunkenly discussing Virgil, Homer and the art of Marc Chagall. Far too clever by half, Howard's film is really a series of strung-together moments, with all the spaces in between filled with fantasies, daydreams, memories and one fantastic visual trope after another. Tiny fragments of the script appear on labels around Leon's house; a terrible roadside accident is staged as a Vietnam flashback; and a tense afternoon tea with Leon's imperious mother (Angie Dickinson) ends in a small indoor cloudburst. But unlike Alison Maclean's skilled adaptation of Denis Johnson's similarly fragmented collection Jesus' Son, none of it coheres into anything interesting until late in the game, when Howard finally lets the story emerge from the clutter. The film's few saving graces include Dickinson's sardonic southern belle; Winger's welcome return to the screen after a five-year absence; and Howard's voice-over readings of Brown's powerful prose, which ultimately saves the film from itself.