February 22, 2002 11:20am EST
Vietnam vet Leon Barlow is going through a terrible patch. His bitter separation from wife Marilyn resulted in a restraining order and he sees his kids Alan and Alisha only occasionally. His writing career is definitely in question because day after day returned manuscripts and rejection letters arrive in his mailbox. Still Leon manages to tap out prose in the shabby house he shares with a mangy mutt in a rural Mississippi outpost. Leon's best pal Monroe throws him a painting job now and then but is little more than a drinking buddy. Their mutual friend Velma is fun to party with at local dives but is more Monroe's lady. Leon's carousing lands him in jail and a stint in community service after a near-fatal car accident. A terrible family tragedy sobers him up but the big turning point for Leon arrives in the form of an unexpected letter from a long-supportive editor.
Arliss Howard who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay turns in a muscular if familiar performance as the tormented writer. A logical comparison is Ed Harris' recent interpretation of Jackson Pollock an artist similarly bedeviled. But Leon's devils are a mystery--so much so that one wonders: What is this guy's problem? Still Howard has the pervasive angst and southern drawl down pat and convinces as a loser aching to be a winner. Paul Le Mat as pal Monroe is fine as the inconsequential but sweet yokel but Rosanna Arquette as Velma has little to do except look pretty. For reasons unknown Howard's real-life wife Debra Winger who plays onscreen wife Marilyn left her southern drawl somewhere under the kudzu. Whereas all the other characters ring true of Mississippi roots Winger somehow feels flown in from parts unknown. Also in a brief role Angie Dickinson as Leon's mother makes a very welcome return to the big screen. Sigourney Weaver lends some relief and her voice as an unseen editor.
Director Howard co-adapting with his brother from short stories by Larry Brown has slapped on enough style for three films to the extent that
Big Bad Love too often makes no sense. Worse whatever the story is here (surely it's more than that writers get lucky if they wait long enough) is lost. Howard making his directorial debut resorts to loads (overloads) of flashy devices: cryptic montages fantasy sequences solemn fade-outs noisy soundtrack flourishes etc. Such directorial "virtuosity" not only saps the narrative drive but also robs the characters of the much-needed dimensions that make them real recognizable and compelling. Also with so much style crushing so little substance it's just not clear at all at several important junctures what the heck is going on.
Arthur Kriticos (Tony Shalhoub) is trying to keep his small family together after losing his wife and the mother of their kids Kathy (Shannon Elizabeth) and Bobby (Alec Roberts) in a tragic fire that left them homeless. Out of nowhere one enigmatic Uncle Cyrus (F. Murray Abraham) wills Arthur a bizarre yet dazzlingly beautiful mansion made almost entirely of glass and filled with priceless antiques. There's not much that could go unseen behind the transparent walls except for perhaps 12 pesky ghosts of disturbed folks like onetime mental patients and a kid whose head got in the way of an arrow. It just so happens old Cyrus with the help of his psychic phantom-wrangler Rafkin (Matthew Lillard) has been summoning up a few restless spirits so he can open the Eye of Hell and take over the world or something. They just need one more spirit to finish the job.
All right who's blackmailing Oscar-winner Abraham into taking roles like this? The man should have thrown the script out sight-unseen and then fired his agent. Rah Digga yet another rapper-turned-wanna-be-actress is there to offer some sassy comic relief as the kids' nanny--she's fun in a usual sort of way. Shalhoub-ho hum. Elizabeth? Yawn. She's not even in half the movie. Lillard it can be said is about the only bright spot in this otherwise not-silly-enough not-cheesy-enough not-funny-or-scary-enough horror movie. He's got the right idea as he tries to camp it up as a borderline hysterical psychic who has guilt issues about being able to see everyone's secrets with his "gift." But worst of all is the usually great Embeth Davidtz (um Schindler's List?!) as a--get this--ghost's rights activist who thinks she's channeling Zelda Rubenstein from Poltergeist as she hisses the obvious: "This house is not a house!"
The only thing scarier than F. Murray Abraham taking a role in this movie is that it ever got made at all--then again we have the Dark Castle folks (the same ones who brought us that masterpiece remake The Haunting a few years ago) to thank. They forgot to hire a director and a scriptwriter instead putting visual effects guy Steve Beck behind the camera to show us some semi-interesting special effects (it is a ghost movie after all and you better score some points there). Unfortunately the movie is uneven makes little sense and strives for both laughs and scares but achieves neither with cornball dialog and silly stereotypes; it's wildly gory to boot. Everyone's gonna say the ultra-modern haunted house is the star of Thirteen Ghosts and with good reason. The production design in this movie is amazing and the idea of ghosts hiding behind clear walls is an intriguing if ultimately wasted concept.
After surviving a devastating car accident following her first college party freshman Cassie (Melissa Sagemiller) falls into a coma and steps into a nightmare of otherworldly visitations. Haunted by a grim reaper of a far different kind her only hope is to cling to chance encounters with her lost love Sean (Casey Affleck) and the aid of a mysterious young priest named Father Jude (Luke Wilson). Cassie's malicious friends Matt (Wes Bentley) Annabel (Eliza Dushku) and the morose Raven (Angela Featherstone) seem intent on drawing her to the dark side but the spirit of her soul mate Sean guides her back to the world of the living.
Sagemiller (Get Over It) may be a fine actress but this film--her second full-length feature--isn't the one to prove it. Not that Sagemiller does a poor job but like most dull and stale horror movies the female lead isn't asked to do much other than look frightened and scream--a lot. Affleck (Good Will Hunting) Bentley (American Beauty) and Dushku (Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) are among the more talented actors of their generation but are completely wasted especially Affleck in his one-dimensional role. Wilson as Father Jude is the only character with an interesting part but unfortunately the good Father's development is stunted and incomplete leaving Wilson little to work with.
Steve Carpenter's first turn as a director leaves much to be desired. Of course Carpenter wrote the formulaic script so why shouldn't he be the one to helm it? One major flaw (and there are plenty to choose from) is that nearly half the movie is shot tight on the characters giving the audience a very myopic view. Even if that was intentional it certainly did nothing to heighten the tension (what little of it there was) in the movie. The flick's tagline "The World of the Dead and the World of the Living... are About to Collide" conveys the message of an epic struggle between the forces of evil and the forces of good--a struggle that never materializes. And the film's final message that love conquers all is the boring hackneyed truism that breaks the cliché camel's back.