A pedigree cast elevates old-fashioned material and lackluster screenwriting in “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” a handsome but underpowered, overlong Southern melodrama that struggles to accumulate emotional weight. Playing roles neither of them probably were born to play, John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson make this tale of misfits thrown together an agreeable enough time-passer despite newcomer Shainee Gabel’s flowery dialogue and pedestrian direction. Domestic release through a Sony division is still being locked but TV and home entertainment prospects appear stronger.
Loosely adapted from Ronald Everett Capps’ novel “Off East Magazine St.,” the film’s principal asset, next to its cast, is the atmospheric setting of New Orleans in all its languid, woozy torpor. While the French quarter and surrounding bayou country have been widely exposed in American movies, the faded outer neighborhoods and streets of run-down houses here are less frequently seen, providing a quaintly forlorn stage for the low-key redemption story. Pervasive use of the city’s signature barroom jazz and blues also add character to the drama.
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Travolta plays a figure firmly rooted in the tradition of alcohol-soaked Southern literature. Bobby Long is a floridly verbose, washed-up man of letters blithely drowning himself in the bottle. Having relocated to New Orleans after a dark episode forced him to leave the Alabama college where he was a literature professor, Bobby shares his home and his boozing with fellow transplant Lawson (Gabriel Macht), his protege and former teaching assistant. Bobby believes Lawson’s long-in-the-works book about his mentor will immortalize both of them.
The two men’s inert existence is interrupted by the arrival of surly 18-year-old Purslane (Johansson), who returns one day too late for the funeral of her estranged mother Lorraine. Expecting to move in to her mother’s dilapidated house, Pursy instead is forced to share the quarters with the two deadbeat alcoholics, who claim Lorraine left them an equal share.
As Pursy’s hostility slowly gives way to fractious friendship, the men persuade the high school dropout to resume her studies. Shyly attracted to Lawson, she persuades him to cut back on drinking but Bobby shows more resistance even as his health deteriorates. The deepening relationship between the three gives Pursy insight into the mother she barely knew and helps fill in key gaps in her own life.
Sprinkled through with literary references and quotations that Bobby uses to test Lawson’s knowledge, the script aims to be far less prosaic than it ultimately is. Principal defect is the inability to crank up any dramatic charge from its major revelations. The past tragedy that caused Bobby and Lawson to flee Alabama spills out with what feels like fabricated momentousness, while the final disclosure regarding Pursy is merely predictable. The action also is bogged down by ponderous voiceovers about the lingering N’awleans summer and the passing of time.
While it’s interesting to see Travolta stretch himself by playing a philosophizing, white-haired old Southern boy imbibing to keep a lid on his rueful nature, the actor perhaps has too many associations with street-level dudes from Tony Manero to Vincent Vega to fully inhabit the erudite academic. He played Southern far more credibly in “Primary Colors.” Likewise, Johansson’s citified sophistication makes her an imperfect fit for a guarded girl who’s been holed up eating junk food in Florida trailer parks. But both actors give Gabel’s soft script more life than it deserves.
The most incisive and sensitive performance, however, comes from Macht. While he’s perhaps too healthily handsome to be an entrenched boozehound, the actor effectively communicates Lawson’s fragile balance between numbed resignation and galvanizing self-disgust. Deborah Kara Unger has poignant moments as Lawson’s lazily fanned romantic flame. Lenser Elliot Davis’ warm lighting and smooth camera work display a keen feel for the sleepy Louisiana locations.