A Love Song for Bobby Long
A Love Song for Bobby Long

USA, 2004. Rated R. 119 minutes.

Cast: John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, Gabriel Macht, Deborah Kara Unger, Dane Rhodes, David Jensen, Clayne Crawford, Sonny Shroyer, Walter Breaux, Carol Sutton
Writer: Shainee Gabel, based on the novel Off Magazine Street, by Ronald Everett Capps
Original Music: Nathan Larson (score), Grayson Capps (songs)
Cinematography: Elliot Davis
Producers: Bob Yari, R. Paul Miller, David Lancaster
Director: Shainee Gabel


Grade: B Review by Carlo Cavagna

A fter more than a decade in the wilderness, John Travolta returned to the spotlight in 1994 with Pulp Fiction and re-established himself as one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Yet stardom has not necessarily been good for Travolta. It has led him to forgettable performance after forgettable performance in forgettable film after forgettable film. Basic. The Punisher. The General's Daughter. Broken Arrow. Swordfish. Dare we even mention Battlefield Earth? In some Travolta played the protagonist, in others the antagonist, and in one (Face/Off) he even played both, but the result has always been the same—a large paycheck for a small achievement.

It was always when Travolta's characters were more than just “tough,” or “cool,” or “dangerous” that his performances have been strongest. Consider Pulp Fiction, Primary Colors, and Saturday Night Fever. These are roles people remember—character roles, not star vehicles. Despite the lack of respect Travolta's name sometimes elicits, he is better suited to parts with a little meat on their bones.

Travolta's latest film, A Love Song for Bobby Long, is his first character role in some years, and you've never seen him in such a shabby state, not even in Pulp Fiction. He trudges the length of New Orleans (or rather, “Nawlins”) to return home from a bar at sunup, wearing a flip-flop on one foot and a normal shoe on the other because of a bad toe. His hair is white, and he has the look of a bloated boozer. “Time was never a friend to Bobby Long. It would conspire against him, allowing him to believe in a generous nature, then robbing him blind every time,” observes the narrator. He turns out to be Bobby's housemate Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), who is in slightly better shape only because he is a few years younger. Lawson makes fitful attempts to write a novel, but tears up everything he produces. Though obviously intelligent, the two men spend so much time drinking that they have pickled their brains.

Macht, Johansson, and Travolta
Gabriel Macht, Scarlett Johansson, and John Travolta hang out on the porch in A Love Song for Bobby Long.

Change comes in the form of Scarlett Johansson when the absent owner of the house, a legendary local singer/songwriter turned drug addict we never see named Lorraine, dies. Johansson plays Lorraine's daughter, Pursy, which is short for Purslane. She leaves her nightmare boyfriend (Clayne Crawford) and the “Redneck Riviera” of the Florida panhandle to return to Nawlins, only to find the two alcoholics inhabiting her mother's house. Bobby informs her that Lorraine has willed the house jointly to the three of them. With nothing better to do, Pursy moves in. The men decide to drive her out by being intolerable, which they already are.

Predictably, the two men warm up to Pursy, and determine that they will help the eighteen-year-old complete high school. Of course, you know there will be tender moments and angry moments, and that secrets will be uncovered, and you can pretty much guess where it all might end up, but as directed by first-timer Shainee Gabel (working from her own screenplay, based on East Magazine Street by Ronald Everett Capps), there's nothing mechanical about the film. The whole affair is strongly influenced by the Carson McCullers novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, a copy of which plays a prominent role in the story. Like in the McCullers novel, everyone in the film has loved and lost; everyone is damaged; everyone is fundamentally alone and struggling to make connections with other people, and the film conveys these things with an understated beauty. The only story problem, and it's a slight one, is that Lawson's big revealing speech is a mite hard to follow.

A Love Song for Bobby Long is definitely a very literary film, and not just because Bobby and Lawson spend their time quoting Dylan Thomas, George Sand, and Robert Frost. Unlike many literary films, however, Gabel (assisted by cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Sharon Lomofsky) don't neglect the other elements. When Lawson says, “New Orleans is a siren of a city, a place of fables and illusion,” the film makes you believe it. Saturated with fertile colors and great regional rock and blues, the unhurried atmosphere seems as intoxicated as its characters.

It's odd to see Johansson playing a young woman her own age after Lost in Translation, but she's so able that you quickly make the mental adjustment. She's an ideal choice for Persy because of the smirking attitude that served her well in Ghost World, to which she added a dose of vulnerability and indirection in Lost in Translation. Here, she builds on all those qualities, creating a more emotionally damaged character with highly developed defense mechanisms. Macht, as kind of a Bobby Long Junior with pangs of conscience, is every bit as good in a performance that should lead to bigger things.

The star of the show, however, is Travolta as the charismatic, infuriating Bobby Long. Though Travolta's accent may be a bit exaggerated, and he hasn't let himself go physically as much as the role probably required, Travolta is a surprisingly good fit. But, if you think back to Pulp Fiction, Primary Colors, and Michael, each of which contains components of the performance Travolta pulls together here, perhaps not so surprising after all.

Review © November 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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