"A Love Song for Bobby Long" is thick on atmosphere and low on forward-motion, a humid southern gothic filled with lies and sweat and dark secrets from the past. What it doesn't have is a sense of portent or any real surprises, despite its best efforts in ratcheting up the latter. Based on Ronald Everett Capps' novel, "Off Magazine Street," the film starts off annoyingly shady when dealing with the characters and their relationships, segues into sluggishness, and finally culminates in a last 10 minutes much better than the rest of the two-hour running time deserves. By then, alas, it is too late.
When her estranged mother, Lorraine, a woman well-loved by those who knew her, dies, 18-year-old high school dropout Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson) leaves her nowhere existence in Florida to attend the funeral in New Orleans. By the time she arrives, however, she is too late, faced with two alcoholics, 49-year-old Bobby Long (John Travolta) and younger aspiring novelist Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), living in the house her mother has left to the three of them. On a spur-of-the-moment impulse, Pursy decides to move in. What begins rocky between Pursy, Bobby, and Lawson quickly turns to mutual respect, with the two broken menonce a college professor and his teaching assistantinspiring Pursy to return to high school, and all three forming something of a makeshift family. As with all gothic tales, a secret or two between Bobby and Lawson concerning Pursy's mother soon threatens to either tear them apart or make them stronger.
Written and directed by Shainee Gabel, "A Love Song for Bobby Long" is a lugubrious, if well-acted, drama dragged down by too much aimless wandering and clumsily predictable revelations that can be guessed a mile away. It is the type of motion picture in which the characters smoke a lot to mask the story's deficiencies and, every once in a while, recite showy, self-important monologues about heartache and regret that can only be found in the world of movies. None of it is particularly convincing, not bettered by the fat on its bones that is in desperate need of trimming. For such a basic, generally plotless slice-of-life, there is no reason why "A Love Song for Bobby Long" needs to be so, well, long.
Smattered about are some solidly modulated moments, particularly concerning Bobby's fear that Lawson, his reliable, like-minded companion of several years, is going to leave him. Because Bobby props himself up on Lawson, going through him to keep dreams of the future alive since he doesn't have any of his own, imagining a life without him is impossible. In his first independent film in ten years, John Travolta (2004's "The Punisher
") plays against type as a haggard, gray-haired alcoholic and believably becomes this down-and-out man with a minimum of movie-star histrionics. Also very good are the concluding scenes, following the inevitable disclosure of a key secret. The way in which Pursy deals with this information goes against expectationsironic, since the surprise itself is so obviousand is the catalyst for some of the film's most emotionally authentic interludes. Unfortunately, getting to this point in the story is not worth it; there is a lot of dead space bound to test most viewers' patience.
Scarlett Johansson (2003's "Lost in Translation
"), if not necessarily getting better as an actress, at least performs at the same consistently high level. Perhaps her biggest problem is that she is so talented there doesn't seem to be much room for improvement. As Pursy, Johansson is a radiant marvel, bringing so many intriguing facets and so much depth to a two-dimensional role that she elevates the pic by herself from interminable to kinda-sorta watchable. Gabriel Macht (2003's "The Recruit
") rounds out the familial unit as Lawson, a man in his mid-twenties who wants to be a novelist but doesn't know if he has what it takes to complete his book and be satisfied with the end product. Macht is fine, but his curious blandness can't hold a candle to Johansson and Travolta's superior work.
Filled with lovingly chosen southern blues songs that capture the essence of its characters' hesitant lives, "A Love Song for Bobby Long" is better in sections than as a whole, and those sections don't arrive at a steady enough pace to undo its failings. Hinging itself on the previously mentioned revelations gives the film a corny, mannered undercurrent. Writer-director Shainee Gabel places too much fruitless emphasis on being disingenuous in the first two acts and spends not nearly enough time on the key relationship between Pursy and Bobby that develops in potentially engrossing ways by the end. Instead of getting the viewer to care about the characters all the way through, "A Love Song for Bobby Long" mostly just acts as a warning to never visit the deep south in the unbearably grimy summertime. The winters don't seem much better.