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Review: A Love Song for Bobby Long

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The New Orleans found in A Love Song for Bobby Long doesn’t map to the real New Orleans: it’s a romantic impression of a mythical New Orleans, all hot jazz and cool rain, a city imagined by writers for generations as a safe haven for broken creatives. This New Orleans can’t help, of course, but be narrated with florid turns of phrase by tortured alcoholic once-geniuses trying to prove they haven’t yet totally drowned their talent.

A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004)
Grade: C-
Written and Directed By: Shainee Gabel
Starring: John Travolta Scarlett Johansson Gabriel Macht
Studio: Dimension/Lions Gate

The “talent” in this case comes in the person of Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), a former student of one-time English professor Bobby Long (John Travolta) who escaped with Bobby from Alabama to New Orleans nine years before the story here begins. They’ve dedicated their lives to staying as inebriated as possible and assumed squatter’s rights on the house of a friend of theirs, a jazz singer. But when that friend dies, her teenage daughter (Scarlett Johansson) comes for the funeral and ends up moving in with them–they convince her the house is one-third hers when in reality it’s three-thirds hers. They have to try to learn to live together, have things to teach each other, yadda yadda yadda…really, it became difficult to care much about what happened because Travolta’s performance was so obnoxious.

John Travolta has been doing this acting thing professionally and successfully for more than thirty years now. He’s got a couple of Academy Award nominations under his belt. Don’t you think that by now he might have learned a little bit of the art of subtlety? Admittedly, Bobby Long is just the kind of hambone part many actors, especially ones with penchants for chewing scenery, love to latch onto: Bobby’s a man whose many weaknesses overtake and overwhelm the rest of his character. Travolta, unsurprisingly, grabs Bobby and holds on a little too hard. Every scene feels like he’s hoping that’s the one they’ll show during his Oscar nomination vignette. Even his physical performance goes too far. He plays Bobby less like a worn-down fifty-year-old alcoholic than an arthritic eighty-year-old who never got that hip replacement he so desperately needed. Travolta created Bobby Long by dusting off his Bill Clinton impersonation from Primary Colors and removing all of the charm.

If Travolta needs some acting lessons to refresh his craft, he could do far worse than to call up his co-star Scarlett Johansson, who’s been alive less time than Travolta’s been famous yet still bests his acting in this movie at every turn. Everywhere that he’s off-key, she’s perfecly in tune; for every exaggerated facial contortion of his, she responds with a delicate expression–even her faux Southern accent trumps his. (Travolta makes the common non-Southerner’s mistake of overselling the eccentricities of the accent, but Johansson knows that a lighter touch comes off more believably.) Johannson’s performance as the ridiculously-named Purslane Hominy Will is rarely less than superb. Unfortunately, it’s also subtle and so gets squashed by the leviathan that is John Travolta’s overacting.

(“Hominy?” Really? Girl, your mother named you after grits? Exactly the kind of thing only someone not from the South would think a Southerner would do.)

Much of what bugged me about A Love Song for Bobby Long was exactly that feeling, that it was a movie about Southerners made by people with no knowledge of the South. It felt like a South imagined by someone who’s only familiar with the region from listenting to old blues music and watching reruns of “In the Heat of the Night.” I don’t know how much of that problem can be blamed on writer/director Shainee Gabel (from Philly) and how much on Ronald Evertt Capps, who wrote the novel Off Magazine Street on which this movie was somewhat loosely based, but almost nothing about how the South was presented felt true to me (and I’m a Southerner, current New England residence aside). I can’t say for certain that no one in New Orleans lives the way Bobby Long and Lawson Pines and their friends do, but I just didn’t buy it for a second.

Written by Allen

May 25th, 2005 at 10:32 pm

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