Southern ham, not tasty

  • By Robert Horton / Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, January 27, 2005 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

A couple of appealing stars lend their presence to “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” which is the only possible reason for this twice-baked movie to exist. Offered up at the end of the year as possible awards bait, it now seems to be sliding off the map.

The stars in question are Scarlett Johansson (who did indeed snag a Golden Globe nomination for this), and John Travolta. This is Travolta trying out a character role – as his Southern accent, bright white hair and drinking problem make perfectly clear.

In a forgotten corner of the south, failed writer and successful alcoholic Bobby Long (Travolta) is hunkered down in a ramshackle house. He’s inherited the place – apparently – from his late live-in girlfriend. Sharing the dump is former student Lawson (Gabriel Macht), who’s got his own writer’s block going full blast.

Arriving on the doorstep, a day late for the funeral, is Pursy (Johansson), the dead woman’s long-forgotten daughter. With nothing better to do, she stays at the house, eating peanut butter and M&Ms out of a jar and nursing a lazy interest in Lawson.

Bobby slouches around and taunts his housemates, Lawson labors over his epic novel, and Pursy reads Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” I guess this movie wants to be in the gothic-tragic vein of McCullers or Tennessee Williams, and it strains hard to achieve that drowsy, mint-julep feel.

Boy, does it strain. Almost every plot device is held over from some better Southern movie-play-novel, and young director Shainee Gabel encourages her actors to lay on the deep-fried accents and boozy attitude.

Travolta gives a highly theatrical performance, and you don’t buy him for a moment. Nor is it easy to work up much sympathy for Bobby and his self-pitying, self-destructive ways, which seem wasteful rather than romantic.

Along with Pursy, we are supposed to come to understand the dead mother, a promiscuous chantoosie. She’s revealed as a person of deep feelings, which doesn’t explain how she ignored her daughter for so many years.

Rising young actor Gabriel Macht emerges with some dignity, simply by underplaying next to Travolta’s dinner-theater performance. And then there’s Scarlett Johansson, the “Lost in Translation” star who shows no sign of dimming her early promise.

Her role in “Bobby Long” is perhaps the first to treat the 20-year-old as an unabashed sex symbol, even in a de-glammed kind of way. Her low-key delivery keeps her corner of the film anchored.

The Louisiana locations are nice, too. But even the location shooting comes across as a cliche, like so much else about this project. It is not to be believed.

Gabriel Macht, Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta star in “A Love Song for Bobby Long.”

“A Love Song for Bobby Long” HH

Strained: This cliched drama strains to be a deep-friend Southern melodrama of the Tennessee Williams school. Boy, does it strain. John Travolta hams it up as a boozy failed writer, and Scarlett Johansson keeps it low key.

Rated: R rating is for language, subject matter.

Now showing: Metro.

“A Love Song for Bobby Long” HH

Strained: This cliched drama strains to be a deep-friend Southern melodrama of the Tennessee Williams school. Boy, does it strain. John Travolta hams it up as a boozy failed writer, and Scarlett Johansson keeps it low key.

Rated: R rating is for language, subject matter.

Now showing: Metro.

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