Time-worn story turns surprisingly fresh

"Someone asked me what the movie is about," writes Arliss Howard about "Big Bad Love," his new picture. "I said, 'birth, death, love, work, friendship, pick 'em.... And trains.' "

"Big Bad Love" does take on big human subjects, and it also cultivates the cuteness suggested by that coy "pick 'em" and the whimsical train reference. It's an impressive movie, pointing to Howard as a promising new director.

If he's going to make a lasting mark, though, he should turn to material that provides a more original outlet for his cinematic skills.

In "Big Bad Love," Howard plays the hero, Barlow, a cranky Mississippi writer who spends his hours drinking with his best buddy, feuding with his former spouse, worrying about his young children, and collecting rejection slips, which fly into his mailbox with amazing frequency.

Much of his life is a black hole of time-wasting trivia, but events conspire to keep his emotions and intellect alive - traumatic events, mostly, such as an alarming car accident and a tragic death in the family. He meets such challenges as best he can, sometimes rising to them and other times staggering under their weight.

Howard and co-writer James Howard, who based their screenplay on a book of stories by Larry Brown, clearly see Barlow as a larger-than-life figure with the irascible charm of a true creative maverick. I found him a likable cliché as I watched the movie, entertaining to visit but hard to empathize with over the long haul.

Maybe that's why the plot gravitates toward life-shattering events that compel attention Barlow himself doesn't earn. Howard's performance brings Barlow alive as well as anyone's could, and the supporting cast is equally strong: Debra Winger as his ex-wife, Angie Dickinson as his long-suffering mom, Rosanna Arquette as a tempting friend, and Paul Le Mat as a rambunctious pal.

It's nice to see Le Mat in a worthy role again - remember him from "American Graffiti" and "Melvin and Howard"? - since he hasn't gotten as much applause as he's deserved over the years.

Still, the movie's best asset is Howard's directing. He credits his inspiration to such mentors as Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone, but his talent seems one of a kind, making time-worn story ideas seem surprisingly fresh and engaging through a cascade of inventive camera moves and editing effects.

He clearly listened and learned during his acting stints in mold-breaking movies like "Full Metal Jacket" and "Natural Born Killers."

Here's hoping that Howard's next directorial outing uses a more stimulating screenplay as its starting point.

• Rated R; contains sex, violence, and vulgarity.

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