Debra Winger has been out of sight too long. It's been seven years since her last movie, 1995's "Forget Paris," a forgettable romantic comedy with Billy Crystal, and her new picture, "Big Bad Love," reminds us how terrific she can be. There's a sass and bite to Winger's acting, a grinning intelligence, unabashed sexiness and total immersion that make her one of the movies' few hipster female stars. And this is the right sort of return vehicle for her: a cranky and sometimes ravishingly poetic labor of love that she produced for her writer-director-actor husband, Arliss Howard - and in which she plays, selflessly, a small part as a feisty ex-wife.
"Big Bad Love" - like its big bad hero, Mississippi writer-miscreant Leon "Bobby" Barlow (Howard) - is bursting with talent, alive to all kinds of strange beauties but always dancing near self-destruction. Based on the 1990 short-story collection of the same name by Larry Brown, it's been co-written and directed by first-time filmmaker Howard with a surprisingly sure-handed mix of raunchiness, melancholy and lyricism. A portrait of the artist as an aging bad boy, it depicts Barlow sliding through a world of booze, sexual longing and dangerous revelry.
The film's script is based not on the title story of "Big Bad Love" (which is about a dead dog and dysfunctional sex) but on the climactic novella "92 Days," which is about the anguish and absurdity of a writer's life. The movie's Barlow, a moody, unpublished novelist, works on house-painting jobs with his best pal, Monroe (Paul Le Mat), sometimes carousing with Monroe and his sparkly girlfriend, Velma (Rosanna Arquette). He also bedevils ands cajoles his own ex-wife, Marilyn (Winger), and their two children, Alan and Alisha (Zach Moody and Olivia Kersey), while ignoring good advice from his mother (Angie Dickinson) and knocking out novels and tales on a little manual typewriter - stories that keep getting rejected by far-away agents and publishers.
Like "Barfly" (1987), which was about another boozy writer, Charles Bukowski, "Big Bad Love" tends to romanticize its subject's drunken recklessness. But it doesn't skimp on showing the waste of his life or how badly he's damaging himself and others. Barlow is a gloomy, middle-aged boozer lost in hallucinatory fever dreams - in marked contrast to the cheerful Monroe, a gagster with a private fortune who claims to put the "bull" in "ebullience." But if Barlow's visible life seems a waste or a hell, it's partly because the core of his existence is somewhere else: in his writing. And that hell might be redeemed by sympathetic publishers or readers - like the more supportive Betti Deloreo, a New York book person whose glamorous voice is supplied by Sigourney Weaver.
The style of "Big Bad Love" is close to the British and French art films of the '60s and early '70s - especially artist-rebel movies like "Morgan" (1966) or "Petulia" (1968). Howard is in love with both the tough realism of Brown's writing and the glorious artifice of films itself. He uses that artifice - lyrical composition, bravura editing, bizarre fantasy sequences - to take us deep inside Barlow's head, into his hallucinatory daydreams (an indoor rainstorm, erotic bathtub fantasies) and savage melancholy.
Howard cuts freely between dream and reality, present and past. But he also loves his actors and gives them all star turns, affectionately indulging Dickinson's earthy charm and Le Mat's antic boyishness as much as Winger's gutty spontaneity. There are also a remarkable few minutes from Michael Parks as an elderly shop owner, Mr. Aaron, who supplies Barlow with his booze and who, more than anyone else in the picture, seems to have stepped right out of the Mississippi landscape.
"Big Bad Love" is a showcase for Howard and Winger and, despite radical alterations in his story, a showcase for Brown, too. It's a literary film par excellence. Howard not only respects this material, but he also respects what's most literary about it: the pungent language, the visionary dreams and the scalpel-sharp dissection of a lonely man dodging anguish. In the end, the movie suggests that Barlow's indulgent life - his drunken driving, emotional excess and even his last somewhat improbable breakthrough as a writer - are all things for which he (and we) must pay.
Though you couldn't call "Love" a complete success, it's packed with talent and intelligence, wayward poetry and bluesy longing. Let's hope Howard gives his producer-partner Winger an even stronger personal showcase the next time around. He owes her.
"Big Bad Love"
Directed and co-written by Arliss Howard; co- written by James Howard, from the stories by Larry Brown; photographed by Paul Ryan; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; production and costumes designed by Patricia Norris; music supervised by Joe Mulherin; produced by Debra Winger. An IFC Films release; opens Friday, March 15. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (language, some sexuality).
Leon Barlow - Arliss Howard
Marilyn - Debra Winger
Monroe - Paul Le Mat
Velma - Rosanna Arquette
Mrs. Barlow - Angie Dickinson Mr. Aaron - Michael Parks
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times