A moody tone piece about a man mired in despair and alcohol over his failure as a writer, a husband, a father, and a friend, Big Bad Love is full of misery. Filmed in the purlieus of Oxford and Mt. Holly, Mississippi, it shows us the South through dirt roads, rundown gas stations, bars, crazy behavior, and eccentric characters. Its main character, Leon, is drunk through much of the film, and so depressed that he can’t distinguish his own fantasies from reality. Ostensibly he is struggling to succeed as a writer, and we often watch him opening returned manuscript and reading rejection letters, which he posts on a bulletin board over the desk where he writes on his old manual typewriter. He’s a lover of language and of writing. He reads the dictionary, remembers strange words, mounts words on the wall above his writing desk. He declaims poems aloud, when he’s sober enough to remember them. He does write, some, but mostly he drinks and gets into trouble.
Big Bad Love gives us the South of Mississippi writer Larry Brown, whose 1990 story collection of the same title is its source. The film is based mainly on the third section of that collection, a long story entitled “92 Days,” about an unpublished and struggling writer confronting the same problems Leon in the movie deals with. Brown’s stories in Big Bad Love are mainly about working class alcoholic men in their 30s on the verge of divorce, or recently divorced. They’re lonely for love after deserting, or being deserted by, aging and incentive wives. They’re like country music songs of a certain type—the George Jones type—that visit and revisit the same self-pitying and self-destructive themes from different angles over and over and over. The film is loosely faithful to the story, but considerably less woman-hating. My guess is that there is much of Brown in Leon (well played by Arliss Howard).
Leon is more a struggling man than a struggling writer, and much of the film is made up of his memories, or himself and his wife (Debra Winger) early in their failed marriage, of their children at a younger age, of his childhood and especially his mother, of his apparently dead father (played in brief appearances by Larry Brown himself). Memories and dreams interweave with a hallucinatory reality. The film sometimes verges on making fun of Leon’s drunkenness, and indeed a mild patina of romantic admiration for his excessive living and suffering suffuses the story.
As much as this film’s moody nostalgia (for what?) entranced, it did seem to be working the old cliché that you have to suffer to succeed as a writer, and you also have to make people around you suffer and nearly drink yourself to death and wreak havoc in many other ways. Everything that could go wrong does. His daughter dies, his ex-wife reminds him about her restraining order, and he discovers that the brain injury his brother suffered while they were out together on a drunken spree left him nearly a vegetable. He spends two weeks in prison, but when his first story is accepted, and his novel is solicited with the promise of publication, everything turns rosy. This change seemed too easy.
All the actors, especially Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Rosanna Arquette, and even Angie Dickinson are good. My old teacher and friend Coleman Barks was moving and darkly funny as the preacher who gives the eulogy at the funeral. The soundtrack, a collection of Mississippi blues and John Hiatt and Tom Waits and others, is finely tuned to the film.