As an actor, Howard has over the years worked with some one-of-a-kind filmmakers -- Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, and Stanley Kubrick, just for starters -- and their assorted rebellions have clearly rubbed off on him. As a result, Howard's Big Bad Love explodes with brave ambition while falling a little short, perhaps, on traditional narrative sense. So be it. If devotees of the cinematic art and the independent spirit were willing to slide down a tunnel into John Malkovich's head a couple of years back, there's no reason why we should avoid banging around for a while inside one Leon Barlow (played by Howard himself, of course), a disturbed Mississippi novelist who comes equipped with sorrows, a vivid imagination, a snootful of bourbon, and a taste for beat-up outlaw blues singers like R.L. Burnside and the late Asie Payton (who bring glory to this soundtrack).
Leon is the alter ego of an actual Mississippi novelist named Larry Brown, a Vietnam vet and ex-fireman who published his first stories in 1988 and is now the author of four novels, including Dirty Work and, most recently, Billy Ray's Farm. Without fear -- without much sense, some would say -- Howard has waded into Brown's early, highly autobiographical fiction and come out the other side with a film that chronicles the making of a writer, the way he turns the raw material of his life and his dreams into fiction while coming to grips with the varieties of love -- romantic, filial, parental, aesthetic. It's a tall order, but any movie that dares to imagine a rejected husband crawling over the lawn at his wife's house in the guise of a scared infantryman on night patrol cannot be all bad. Neither can a movie featuring a drunk who, when stopped by the police, grabs the cop and starts doing the tango with him, and a depressed writer who must retrieve his typewriter from a briar patch. As for Leon Barlow's replies to the many publishers who've rejected his work, what could be more eloquent than, "Dear Motherfucker: You spineless cretin ..."?
Howard's collaborators in this constantly touching, surprisingly funny, semisurrealist exploration of the creative act include his younger brother, James Howard, a Kansas City poet with two previously unproduced screenplays in the drawer; Arliss' wife, Debra Winger, who, after several years away from the cameras, puts in a nicely shaded performance as Leon's estranged spouse, Marilyn; American Graffiti's Paul Le Mat, who plays Leon's loyal, witty friend and war buddy, Monroe; and Rosanna Arquette as the love of Monroe's life, a feisty funeral-home heiress named Velma. There's also Angie Dickinson, burnished and still strikingly beautiful, as Leon's skeptical mother, complete with afternoon cocktail and Mercedes-Benz sedan.
"I swear," Velma tells Leon, "nothin's real to you 'cept what's in your head." For better or worse -- mostly better -- we find ourselves in there with him for a couple of hours, reinventing ourselves, too.