For someone desperate to forge some kind of career using the written word, I must confess that literature has never been my strong suit. In fact, if not for a teacher’s cajoling (re: it was a required book report in 10th grade) I would never have read an entire novel from start to finish. Of course, once I got my fill of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, I immediately jumped ship, discovering that the Western styling of Louis L’amour and the wild spy adventures of Robert Ludlum were more to my liking. And while college forced a temporary return to the Old Masters, by then I had become too enamored with mainstream fiction to ever indulge in long Sunday afternoons reading the likes of “The Old Man and the Sea” ever again.
“A Love Song for Bobby Long” is one of those movies, like Wong Kar-Wai’s films, that remind me of my cultural shortcomings. In the movie, disgraced English professor Bobby Long (John Travolta) has a game he plays with his former teaching assistant (now roommate) Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), whereby Bobby quotes a famous author, and Lawson names the writer. Needless to say, I couldn’t match any of the quotes with their writers; such is the sad state of my deficient literary education. No one is more disgraced by it than I.
“Bobby Long” opens with the offscreen death of Pursy Will’s mother in New Orleans. Pursy (Scarlett Johansson), a high school drop out who has been estranged from her mother for years now, returns home for the burial. She arrives a day late, and finds Bobby and Lawson, a budding novelist who has made himself Bobby’s unofficial caretaker, living in her mother’s house. The two men claim they own two-thirds of the house (with Pursy holding the other third), but of course it’s a lie. They’re squatters, having lived off the generosity of Pursy’s mother before her passing. Towards this end, Bobby hatches a plan to get Pursy to move out instead of them.
Much of the film revolves around characters sitting around talking, which makes the cast important, and here Gabel has chosen her players well. There is no one in “Bobby Long” who doesn’t do a fine job, including Deborah Kara Unger as the bar owner who pines for Lawson. There is a nice scene between Unger’s Georgianna and Macht’s Lawson in the rain on Christmas night. The scene plays without dialogue, leaving everything that needs to be said, that has to be said, that neither one has the courage to say, take place between an exchange of looks. It’s one of the film’s best scenes, made all the more memorable because the script requires good actors, and in a movie dominated by two big-name stars, two relatively unknowns get a brief moment to shine.
And then there’s Gabriel Macht, who I have always liked, even when he was wasted in junk supporting roles in throwaway films like “Bad Company” and “The Recruit”. Even so, I’m not sure if “A Love Song for Bobby Long” is the step up I had hoped for Macht. Working across Scarlett Johansson, who actually seems to glow in a lot of scenes (I’m not sure if it’s the lighting, or if she’s just naturally glowy) and a John Travolta in full scenery chewing mode, Macht is mostly lost in the middle. He has his moments, such as the scene with Unger in the rain, but his character remains, from beginning to end, the least interesting of the three.
Shainee Gabel (director) / Ronald Everett Capps (novel), Shainee Gabel (screenplay)
CAST: John Travolta …. Bobby Long
Scarlett Johansson …. Pursy Will
Gabriel Macht …. Lawson Pines
Deborah Kara Unger …. Georgianna