Customer Reviews: Big Bad Love
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on April 15, 2004
It is a brave, albeit sometimes foolish, thing to invest one's soul in one creative project. Arliss Howard as writer, co-producer, director, and star of this film stepped up to the plate, and blasted this one out of the park. He took a series of short stories by realist Southern writer Larry Brown, raw jangled events, and weaved a remarkable semi-cohesive odyssey from them.
Howard, as director, created the kind of film that slaps you in the face. It showers you with smokey narrative, and challenges you to stay up with it. It is very cinematic, laden with lush flashbacks, Fellinisk absurdist characters frolicing about, voice-overs (some of which overlap), surrealism, and piercing symbolism. It recreated the musky flavors of Mississippi, in pace, dialect, and imagery. Some of the dialogue was clever, worth quoting, and much of it was colloquial; rife with down-home twang and swagger. Barlow, the main character, at one point said," I want to punch a mudhole in your ass, and stomp it dry.".
Howard, as producer, teamed up with his wife, Debra Winger, and convinced IFC to release it. Howard, as writer, collaborated with Larry Brown's brother Jim, and they transcribed all the swarthy confusion, drama, and epiphany of the short stories, overlaying them with a through-line and a fascinating protagonist engaged on a drunken angry journey from bathos to clarity.
Howard, as actor, gave an intense, passionate, and unsympathetic performance; like Ed Harris in POLLOCK. We sensed the character's genius, and we were forced to wade hip deep in his imperfections. Leon Barlow was a man fighting demons, and taking heavy body punches. A wannabe writer, a Vietnam vet, an alcoholic, a deadbeat dad, a brawler, and an eccentric. He smoked too much, drank too much, and was not a responsible parent for his wonderful son and daughter. But he was also a loyal and loving friend, and a talented writer. Howard was so good in this part, Roger Ebert in his review reacted emotionally to the negativity of the character. For much of the picture Barlow was falling down drunk, literally, and Howard portrayed it masterfully. The image of Barlow haunts us; that gaunt enebreated stare, that sparkling intellect swirling below the booze, that muscular back covered in scars, his PTSD, that ever present cigarette dangling from his lips.
Paul Le Mat gave one of his best performances as Monroe, the good buddy and best friend. He seemed to be quite wealthy, but after he and Barlow returned from Viet Nam, all he ever wanted to do was hang out with his friend. He became patron and caretaker. He loved the man, and he stood by him regardless of the risk. After Monroe was nearly killed when an Army truck collided with his stalled pick-up, leaving him brain damaged and remote, Barlow was cut loose. And this tragedy came on the searing heels of Barlow losing his angelic daughter to a respiratory ailment. The twin traums seemed to shake the hangover cobwebs from his psyche, forcing him to look into the abyss of his excesses. Then like a bolt of white light he received an acceptance letter for some of his writing, and the denouement was complete.
Debra Winger, as Marilyn, the ex-wife, reminded us that we have missed her screen presence for far too long. Her small scene where she finally lets the grief from her daughter's death descent upon her was devastating. Thematically, Barlow, in jail, had the same moment to stare at his child's snapshot and grieve. Their co-mingled cries of loss and anguish rose together as parents, and it became doubly hard to resist one's tears. Rosanna Arquette had fun with Velma, Monroe's girlfriend, then wife. Her mixture of ditz-sexuality and geniune compassion rang true. Angie Dickinson, as the mother, Mrs. Barlow, did a credible job of joining the ensemble. Michael Parks, as the storekeeper, Mr. Aaron, was almost recognizable. Only his habitual mumbling clued us in; although to his credit he did create a memorable character. Several Tom Waits tunes, and other blues selections were used for musical tone. I wondered how Tom Waits, as actor, would have approached Mr. Aaron. One fun bit of casting had author Larry Brown playing the father, Mr. Barlow.
The film is a carnival ride, and we are swept up in a maelstrom of delusion, cigarette smoke, stale beer, tragedy, humor, and whiskey. As it winds down finally, as the emotional storm abates, we are left with an odd sense of warmth, as if the arduous journey has paid off, and we are left with a sun-kissed birdsong moment on a cloudless Southern morning.
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on December 28, 2002
I think this will be a movie that people keep looking for - until it gains the appropriate status it deserves. Even if it's 20 years from now. It's terrific - even if unsettling, a bit hard to follow (unless you free up your head to let the movie lead you), idiosynchratic (to say the least), and challenging. It's a piece, not just a movie. Every little detail is right and in its right place. If you want a lesson in acting, watch this movie. Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Paul LeMat, Rosanna Arquette, Angie Dickinson are wonderful - honest, real, without a trace of how they do this amazing work. (Catch the neat cameo by Michael Parks, too) The acting is so smoothly done that these people could be your neighbors - and certainly mine. These are great actors/actresses - all of whom have been underrated in their careers and not "scene" often enough. The photography is enthralling at times. Beautiful, even when focused on the ugly. There is warmth and wit and heart and honesty. There is a very true portrait of what it is like for a writer - or perhaps any creative person - who, not always by choice, must live in his/her own head. "All you know, Leon, is what goes on in your own head." The music is a perfect match. While the directing requires a lot from the viewer and the script, written by Jim P. Howard and Arliss Howard (yes, the very same Arliss Howard)based on stories by Larry Brown (very much worth reading), is not easy at times, the movie is well worth the effort to find it. If you want a movie about real people, with real humor, real daily struggles, and a great big heart - this is it. With the DVD you can replay the hard parts, enjoy again the great parts. An imperfect (sorta like real life) movie, yes, but the lessons about movie making and the lessons about acting from this cast are perfect. If you truly get into this film, you'll never quite look at yourself in the mirror the same way again.
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on February 2, 2004
Others have already given comprehensive reviews of this, so I won't retread, but I just had to recommend this amazing little movie. It was obviously a labor of love in the making, and is much closer to the reality of relationships and human problems than most of the Hollywood junk that folks have grown accustomed to being spoon-fed. "The only thing you know is what goes on inside your head", and that existential posit is true enough.
I'll never forget that image of the boxcar slowly trailing away.
Surreal and touching, funny as it is harrowing and desperate, these characters seek renewal and escape...if that's possible.
Or are they, like all of us, prisoner's of their own lives and subject to the winds of fate?
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on October 20, 2004
I've read some Larry Brown novels but not the short story this movie was based on -- this might have been a good thing. I had no particular expectations, except that the movie would be about a writer and that, as with other Brown characters, the writer would be frustrated and maybe drunk.

I'm *not* a writer, so this is hard for me to explain -- but watching Big Bad Love was like being in Brown's head. What a great experience. I can't think of any other film that's done this. I enjoyed every second, and I'd like to thank Arliss Howard and everyone involved for doing it.
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on February 28, 2004
BIG BAD LOVE takes more chances than a lot of films that have been made in the last several years. It relies a lot on surreal imagery and a fragmentary pacing to convey the messiness of the life of Leon Barlow, full-time writer and wrecked-up vet. Arliss Howard embodies Barlow fully; it's amazing that he was able to both direct and star in this film and to do a great job in both roles (and a third; he co-wrote the script as well). Paul Le Mat, a great actor who should be seen more often onscreen, almost steals the film away from Howard in the part of his best friend Monroe, who suffers a tragic turn of events that ironically partly serves to bring a semblance of balance to Barlow's out-of-kilter life. The whole movie is a finely-wrought stream-of-consciousness tale, with the underlying theme being that people somehow manage to maintain connections with one another despite the body-blows delivered by life. Highly recommended.
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on October 27, 2015
Read the collection of short stories by Larry Brown first, but this film only picks up pieces of them, far as I could tell. That being said, BBL is an indie film, the lead being one of the writers. That may explain the complicated structure, with a number of sudden flashbacks, not all of which are explained--they just hang in memory, so to speak. Frankly, they detracted from solid acting, unnecessarily muddying plot continuity and character motivation (which seemed clear enough otherwise). The risks of actors writing their own script--or maybe vice versa.
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on August 28, 2003
I had read the short story collection before, and seeing the movie made me go back to see what I had missed--but I hadn't missed anything. It is not often that a movie actually out performs a book, but Arliss Howard took Brown's unsympathetic Barlow and turned him into a character I could actually empathize with. The Barlow in "92 Days" I couldn't care less about. This is redneck surrealism done right.
I don't get why so many people have a sore tooth about the film. The cinematography is great and the characters are really southern instead of backwoods cliche. Scenes that didn't make the film get represented with image metaphors (a cow at the typewriter--a chainsaw on the porch--a pig getting carried down the road--so if you paid attention to the book and film at all nothing really gets left out.
Also, the casting is perfect. Arliss plays the best fall down drunk I've ever seen--"That's me and Monroe, Monroe."--and Debra Winger plays the heartbroken ex-wife like no one I've ever seen. The desperation in her face as she is running down the road in the final scene broke my heart.
I think Brown is a talented writer(although the 'gritty realism' thing gets old with me, and sometimes the lack of real emotions his characters have seems unbelievable), but the lady who said to skip the film and go just for the book is crazy. Arliss turned coal to diamonds(maybe not that drastic), and the film deserves alot more credit than it's been given by reviewers and viewers who don't like to think.
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on January 29, 2006
"Some dreams ruin being awake if you know the difference. Best not to know."

In high school I spent the night over at a friend's house. We lived out in the country. He wanted to watch "Pink Floyd: The Wall." He said you had to be on drugs to really get it. He didn't have any drugs, but he said if we watched the movie really late at night, being half-awake and half-asleep, that it might give the same experience. Watching "Big Bad Love" reminded me of that night, even though I watched it wide awake on a Sunday afternoon. It's what "The Wall" might've been if Roger Waters had been a writer who'd grown up in Mississippi.

I think I needed to read Larry Brown's book of short stories before I watched this so I could have better appreciated the film's narrative. Halfway through, I gave up trying to connect with any of the multiple storylines and started watching it as an expressionist portrait of a writer's struggle. This is Arliss (Men Don't Leave) Howard's directorial debut -- he also plays the main character, Barlow. Howard has been acting for over twenty years, and this seems like a film packed with all the ideas from a notebook kept during that time of scenes he'd want to direct whenever he got the opportunity. Those scenes are gorgeously shot, and are filled with powerful small moments - the opening sex scene with Marilyn (Debra Winger) in a bathtub wearing a wedding gown, Barlow and best friend Monroe (Paul Le Mat) chasing after the Flasher in their pick-up truck, the scenes with Rosanna Arquette -- but the overall narrative structure is so disjointed that it made it difficult for me to become emotionally engaged with anyone other than Barlow. This is a shame because the supporting players all deliver strong performances that are all lost in Barlow's detached, tormented, inebriated perspective. Then again, maybe that's the point. Howard inhabits Barlow on the screen and behind the camera. There's a tragedy late in the story that provides some focus, but the film never really loses its hallucinatory feel.

Also, the soundtrack is worth checking out if you're into eclectic blues. In the film, there's a scene in a bar featuring the late R.L. Burnside performing "Snake Drive" as Barlow punches some guy's lights out.
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on April 2, 2014
This is by far one of the best films of recent past. Leon Barlow is a day laborer on the down and outs who has a passion and flare for creative writing. Unfortunately, no one else sees his imminent genius. Thus, he is tortured by his tumultuous reality. It's a great movie for tortured geniuses, artists, or simply those that can relate to unconventional adulthood (which I think is everyone).
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on January 27, 2016
More than in the film version of "Joe", Larry Brown's voice has been effectively captured in a highly memorable film. This is an unforgettable picture and deserves a place in your head. Watch it with good friends.
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