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.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Monday 1st October 2001
Box Office USA: $0.1M
Distributed by: IFC Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 41%
Fresh: 24 Rotten: 34
IMDB: 6.1 / 10
Director: Arliss Howard
Producer: Debra Winger
Starring: Arliss Howard as Barlow, Debra Winger as Marilyn, Paul Le Mat as Monroe, Rosanna Arquette as Velma, Angie Dickinson as Mrs. Barlow, Michael Parks as Mr. Aaron, Alex Van as Deputy, Sigourney Weaver as Betti DeLoreo (voice)
Also starring: James Howard
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