Directed by Arliss Howard. US. 2001. 121 min.

Severely flawed in both dramatic and cinematic ways, Big Bad Love, the feature directorial debut from actor Arliss Howard, is an ambitious film about a Vietnam vet (played by Howard), who's trying to create fiction from his troubled past and regain control over his turbulent life. This indie, which was poorly received at this year's Cannes Festival's Directors' Fortnight, gains from the participation of the gifted Debra Winger (Howard's wife, who has not acted in films in years) as the vet's ex-wife and still grand amour. Theatrical prospects are iffy for a messy, rambling, overlong picture that will benefit immensely from substantial cuts and further post-production work.

Based on the acclaimed collection of short stories by celebrated Mississippi writer Larry Brown, the vastly uneven script, credited to Arliss and his brother James, is an attempt to weave a tale of struggle, redemption, and newly regained balance. Leon Barlow (Howard) is a sensitive and talented man, whose life had spinned out of control after a nasty divorce from his wife Marilyn (Winger). Approaching middle-age and fearing he might never get to express his true feelings in writing, Barlow also needs to come to terms with the responsibilities of being a father of an adolescent son, who needs him desperately as a role model, and a young daughter, inflicted with an incurable respiratory illness.

The three women in Leon's life are: Marilyn, who has retained custody of both of their children and now refuses to see him; his despondent but still beautiful mother (Angie Dickinson), who always reproaches him and sadly realizing he may resemble her late husband; and Velma (Rosanna Arquette), the attractive girl of Monroe (Paul Le Mat), Barlow's war buddy, who provide sympathetic ears in a world full of denials and disappointments.

The aptly titled Big Bad Love conveys vividly the life of an artist in the process of formation, having to contend with one rejection after another from various magazines and publishers, and beginning to realize that he might never get the break he thinks he deserves. Nonetheless, as potentially intriguing as the narrative is, the movie suffers from repetition of ideas, crises, and visual images. Howard is a neophyte helmer who, like many actors-turn-directors, lets the camera linger endlessly over his actors, lacking the ability to cut sequences long after they have made their point. Textually fractured and devoid of a passably involving tempo, Big Bad Love vacillates from some emotional, even lyrical scenes to others that are outright pedestrian and irritating. Technically, the film is shapeless, despite some moody wide-screen lensing from Paul Ryan of the North Mississippi hill country. Tom Waits' bluesy score is a plus, along with a likeable cast, that does its best to elevate the enterprise above its amateurish quality, but to no avail.

Prod co Pieface/Rocking production

Exec prods Manfred Wilde, Barry Navidi, Arliss Howard

Prod Debra Winger

Scr James and Arliss Howard, based on stories by Larry Brown

Cinematography Paul Ryan

Ed Jay Rabinowitz

Music Tom Waits

Main cast Arliss Howard, Debra Winger, Paul Le Mat, Angie Dickinson, Rosanna Arquette