BIG BAD LOVE
directed by Arliss Howard runs March 29-April 4 at Varsity
directed by Hans Petter Moland runs March 29-April 4 at Grand Illusion
'TIS THE SEASON to honor acting and, especially, overacting. But ignored in last Sunday's Oscar telecast were the febrile art-house efforts not so far removed from A Beautiful Mind and Iris. Tortured genius also infuses Big Bad Love, based on a short story collection by Mississippi author Larry Brown. Arliss Howard is the film's director, co-writer, and leading man, playing Leon Barlow, an aspiring Southern writer estranged from his ex-wife (Debra Winger, Howard's wife, making an overdue return to the screen after seven years). Both give fierce, committed performances that show their devotion to their source material.
If only that material merited such devotion. Love offers us the familiar blocked, boozy, self-destructive writer who curses his manual Royal typewriter and, of course, throws it off the porch. Leon's ex and two kids rightfully treat him with the caution due a mad dog. In rather blunt fantasy sequences, he imagines a sexy New York editor on horseback scattering his pages across a field. He also thumbtacks favorite inspirational words and phrases all over his house like a freshman in Hemingway 101.
We've seen too many movies about manly-yet-sensitive men who manfully smoke, drink, and type, and the shambling, impressionistic Love bogs down in such clich鳠and excessive local color. (Let's have a picnic in the middle of marching band practice!) Love's loose, episodic reform narrative is basically one of those the-story-of-how-I-wrote-this-story tales that naturally ends with a triumphant shot of the completed Big Bad Love manuscript. (Ta-da!)
Boasting a killer soundtrack ranging from Tom Verlaine to anachro-blues artists from the Fat Possum label, Love occasionally manages to be affecting despite its fundamental triteness. Or, as Winger says of her ex's overactive inner life, "His curse was remembering. It was also a blessing."
MEMORY ALSO haunts the fractured clan of Aberdeen. Yet its central drunk, Tomas (Stellan Skarsg岤), notably lacks the pretense or self-pity of Love's protagonist. "I'm outdated," the gentle oil-rig worker tells his manic London lawyer daughter (Lena Headey). Kaisa has been dispatched to retrieve her Norwegian father by her Scottish mother (Charlotte Rampling), who's dying of cancer up in Aberdeen. Coke-snorting Kaisa is just as flawed as Tomas—but in denial about her addictive, forlorn condition.
Since the pants-wetting alcoholic isn't permitted to fly, Tomas and Kaisa must drive (and ferry) from Oslo to London, then north to Scotland. En route, they encounter a benevolent trucker (Ian Hart), whose one- dimensional patience strains credulity. (Carting shopping bags full of booze and cigarettes, Tomas and Kaisa are like the hitchhikers from hell.)
Aberdeen packs a season's worth of soap-opera plot twists into its 106 minutes. Beyond the predictable father-daughter recrimination, there's a predictable, implausible romance between Headey and Hart. Naturally, Tomas must visit Kaisa's posh law office to make her cringe in shame. Toss in a few random hooligans, childhood flashbacks, and even a paternity crisis, and you've got a dysfunctional family flick ripe for a Hollywood remake—if it weren't already filmed in English.
Hugs, piss, tears, vomit, deathbed reconciliations—these are staples of melodrama that Aberdeen layers on far too thick. Like Big Bad Love, Aberdeen is short on subtlety but long on acting talent. Overwrought depth of feeling may not be a peculiarly American (or AMPAS) susceptibility, yet it's a trap increasingly felt by filmmakers worldwide. What results are movies—flawed but half-decent movies—that wallow too much and withhold too little. Or, to paraphrase Winger, it's a blessing and a curse.