A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004) Movie Review

a-love-song-for-bobby-long-cover.jpgFor 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.

In that same way, “Bobby Long” works because it’s high-minded, while at the same time remaining grounded — at least, for most of its almost 2-hour running time. Travolta, with dyed white hair, a noticeable limp, and a charming Southern accent, is barely recognizable from his movie star persona, playing a one-time respected professor well past his prime, with an ex-wife somewhere in Alabama and kids he hasn’t seen in years. Bobby Long would be someone to despise if he wasn’t so helpless. Then again, he has a steel-trap mind, and knows exactly where to needle in order to get the reaction he wants.

“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.

First-time writer/director Shainee Gabel doesn’t do everything well, and perhaps the Third Act is a bit rushed, and the denouement too simplistic and “happily ever after”-ish, ruining much of the realness the film had developed up to that point. Still, Gabel elicits an excellent performance from headliner Travolta, and she excels in scenes without dialogue. A long walk by Bobby Long to open the film, and another long walk by Pursy to close things out, makes for an inspired bookending to a movie that oftentimes feels like a play stretched unnecessarily out into a movie.

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.

Besides Travolta, the other big name is Scarlett Johansson, who has been the best teen actor for a few years now, although she’s since turned 20 in 2004. Johansson has been wonderful when the role asks her to show an old soul inhabiting a young body, with “Lost in Translation” being the ultimate coming out party for her mature persona. Here, Johansson is once again asked to play a young woman wise beyond her years, and once again she does beautifully in the role. After films like “Bobby Long” and “Translation”, you have to wonder how Johansson can convince herself to go back to clich’d teen roles ever again.

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.

“A Love Song for Bobby Long”, like all those dead writers Bobby quotes endlessly throughout the movie, has much to say about life and how the journey is important, but so is the realization that all journeys must lead back to the beginning. It’s a very good movie, with great performances from Travolta and Johansson, and sure supporting work from Macht and Unger. Alas, the script is perhaps a bit too predictable, and a shocking revelation toward the end simply too Hollywood for a movie that seems to want to trumpet itself as an “outsider” product. Nevertheless, you can’t discount that “Bobby Long” has to be the best work Travolta has done in ages, and it continues a winning streak by the still very young Scarlett Johansson.

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

Buy A Love Song for Bobby Long on DVD