Depending on your feelings toward the American South, “A Love Song for Bobby Long” will either satisfy or irritate. This Southern Gothic tale, the feature directorial and writing debut for Shainee Gabel, churns up some old and tired stereotypes and attempts to transform them into something more substantive.
Eighteen year old Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) comes home to New Orleans after learning about the death of her long estranged mother. Arriving on the doorstep of her mother’s former home, she encounters its two remaining inhabitants, the world weary Bobby Long (John Travolta) and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht). Broken does not adequately describe Long, once a popular English professor at a prestigious school, and now an emotionally and physically scarred drunk. Lawson, once a promising writing student of Long’s, is slowly being dragged down into the bottle with his mentor.
Having nowhere else to go, Bobby convinces Lawson they should tell Pursy that her mother left the house to all of them equally. The three then strike up an uneasy accord in order to live in the ramshackle house together. Pursy’s resentment softens toward her tenants and the band of misfits that Bobby holds court over. What emerges for all of them is a sense of family that each has lost or never known at all. That past has never been truly reconciled for this group, however, and eventually there are revelations that threaten this unlikely kinship.
It’s an engaging premise that is peppered with a Tennessee Williams flavor in characters that are not necessarily likable, and yet strangely sympathetic. It’s refreshing to see Travolta, a member of that club of movie stars who generally play themselves in every film, attempt a role that is wholly unlike his usual on-screen persona. His Bobby Long is so pungent, so thoroughly damaged, that the odor of stale alcohol, cigarettes and despair almost permeates the theater. Yet it’s not a performance without flaws; although Travolta almost acheives invisibility, there are a few moments when his performance crosses into Southern fried cliché.
Scarlett Johansson gives another illuminating, earnest performance, radiating both worldliness and vulnerablity as Pursy, who’s gone through most her young life thinking she’s more weed than wildflower. Completing the circle is Gabriel Macht, who after years of bit parts rises to the challenge of filling Lawson Pines’ shoes. A failing writer ready to accept his defeated life, Lawson finds in Pursy an anti-muse after years of struggling to satisfy Bobby’s narcissistic desire for an authobiography.
Heavy on metaphor and stereotype, “Love Song for Bobby Long” often languishes a little too much in its quaint perceptions of Southernness. It’s difficult to avoid when you have characters who are themselves designed to be invested in Southern literature — and when a major plot point hinges on Carson McCullers’ “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” Forgiving the offkey moments, “Love Song” hits almost all the right chords.