Being Leon Barlow

The last thing most first-time movie directors would — or should — attempt is to crawl inside the fertile, chaotic mind of an impoverished, drunken Southern writer, then throw the whole interior mess up there on the screen — the poor bastard’s twisted poetic fantasies and occasional bolts of insight, his grieving for a lost wife and a sick child, his hilarious rage at rejection slips, even the war nightmares he endures thanks to a big-league case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Most rookie directors would balk at a package like that, but not Arliss Howard.

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 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 shouldn’t bang around for a while inside Leon Barlow’s.

A disturbed Mississippi writer, Leon (played by Howard) is the alter ego of the Mississippi novelist Larry Brown, a Vietnam vet and ex-fireman who is the author of four novels. 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, esthetic. It’s a tall order, but any movie that shows us a depressed writer retrieving his typewriter from a briar patch and reply to a rejection notice with a letter that begins “Dear Motherfucker: You spineless cretin….” can’t be bad.

Howard’s collaborators in this constantly touching and surprisingly funny semi-surrealist 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 seven years away from the camera, 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 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.

Categories: Movies