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[whitespace] 'Big Bad Love'
Photograph by Elliott Marks

Southern Discomfort: Debra Winger can't tear herself away from her ex-husband in 'Big Bad Love.'

Mississippi Bukowski

'Big Bad Love' tells a bittersweet tale of inscribing while imbibing

By Richard von Busack

WHEN THE booze hits the ink and coalesces into a sort of rapturous cocktail, it's sometimes more fun to watch it being mixed than to drink it. Such happy hours are the perfect stuff of cinema. Big Bad Love's affectionate look at the careening life of one literary Southern boozehound is nigh irresistible. Director/star Arliss Howard (Full Metal Jacket and Men Don't Leave) is a lean, intense party with a noble forehead and a feel for busted lives, music and faces of the deep South.

Here, tradition hangs over the ground like fog, itinerancy is matched with regal manners and easy generosity abounds. It's a little harder to hit bottom in such a locale, because the bottom's lower and more comfortable. (Ex-wife to hero: "You smell weird." Hero: "I took a bath.")

In atmosphere alone, Big Bad Love trumps Monster's Ball as a look at the South--the yellow dog, kudzu and hubcaps-in-the-front-yard South. The soundtrack features new songs by Tom Waits (naturally) and harvested tunes from the down-and-dirty independent Fat Possum label of Lafayette County, Miss., which frequently, and accurately, describes itself as the only blues label that matters.

Our hero is named Leon Barlow and no doubt bears an autobiographical resemblance to the noted author Larry Brown, whose stories are the source of the film. Leon roosts in a beat-up house directly on the railroad tracks, drinking Maker's Mark Bourbon (the best!) without benefit of glasses and chasing it with the kind of beer that comes in cardboard suitcases.

Pounding away at a mechanical typewriter, he fills up huge padded envelopes that come boomeranging back from New York magazines with such speed and regularity that the careless viewer may not be sure if Leon actually mails those envelopes or just rotates them between his desk and his mailbox.

His other occupation is pining for his ex-wife, who keeps him at a distance with the help of a restraining order. Still, she drops by and teases him--and brings over the kids. He's also visited by his mom (a beautifully level performance by Angie Dickinson, who doesn't munch up the boll weevils when using her accent).

Barlow gets just enough encouragement to persist. He's led on by a phantom New York editor, whom he imagines as a muse, a siren. She takes off her shoe and throws it against the wall in some faraway Manhattan office--it lands with a plop in the dented 55-gallon steel drum Barlow uses as an office trash can. (This phantom editor is voiced by Sigourney Weaver.) In the meantime, his friend Monroe (Paul Le Mat) hauls over fresh beer and hot leads on day labor; the two share a taste for literature and drunk driving, a harmless hobby in a land where there are so few cars on the road--until someone gets hurt.

Sometimes, the aspects of the Hollywood production this isn't intrude. The local tavern is a bit too hip-looking, for instance. Debra Winger, who produced the film, plays the ex-wife. It's a welcome return after seven years; the movies missed her more, I bet, than she missed the movies. Still, she doesn't really seem from these Southern parts. This is a minor unease, since Winger didn't fully look Texan in Urban Cowboy, but larger-than-life. Through Larry's slightly booze-goggled memory, Marilyn still looks the way she did on her wedding day, riding a white horse sidesaddle to the church.

I like the way Howard gilds the story with fancy. There's a vagrant boxcar in Barlow's front yard on which he decides to paint a floral mural. A couple of Nam flashbacks are used as bleak comedy. Even a dead girl showing up as a mute angel doesn't seem too sentimental in context, particularly since we've just seen her photo with the sad words "Remember me" written on the back. The film romanticizes the drinking life? Very well, it romanticizes everything, but it doesn't take the dirt off it.

In one scene, a flasher's penis is described as "a few inches short of memorable"; some scenes in Big Bad Love are only a few millimeters short. As an actor turned director, Arliss Howard shows the tendency to go overboard sometimes, to encore big moments that we've already got the gist of. But this very likable bum's life is full of freedom and space, maudit poetry and romance. The film's a good jolt of bad whiskey in a dry time.

Big Bad Love (R; 111 min.), directed by Arliss Howard, written by James and Arliss Howard, based on stories by Larry Brown, photographed by Paul Ryan and starring Arliss Howard, Debra Winger and Angie Dickinson, opens Friday at the Camera 3.

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From the March 28-April 3, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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