Film Reviews

A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG

By • Jan 21st, 2005 •

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Presented by Columbia TriStar and El Camino Pictures
Running time — 119 mins

The plot in full: Scarlett gets a GED, Travolta plays an old drunk with a black toe, and Macht is his devoted protégé. Travolta plays guitar and sings a few songs.

For the first 30 minutes all we hear is how fantastic Lorraine was. A singer, Lorraine touched the lives of so many people! My God, I thought, Lorraine must have cured lung cancer while I was out of town!

Lorraine was tarnished gold! Lorraine was a terrific friend to a bunch of low-life, rural New Orleans losers but a lousy mother who left her daughter with her mother and took off. Now Lorraine has dropped dead from something and her teenage daughter Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) returns to New Orleans for the first time in years, ready to reclaim her childhood home. Lorraine’s rundown house is not Purslane’s alone: Lorraine’s two friends, Bobby Long (John Travolta), a former literature professor, and his protégé, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) are living there. Lorraine left all three of them the house in her will. Bobby and Lawson are drunks who have absolutely no intention of leaving. They do not have jobs but Bobby tells Purslane there is no freeloading allowed. Since there are only two bedrooms, Bobby and Lawson have to share a room. Bobby keeps noticing Purslane’s nubile charms while Lawson – who is not gay – is somewhat involved with Georgianna (Deborah Kara Unger), a bartender.

Bobby and Lawson quote a lot of famous Southern novelists as well as Dylan Thomas, George Sand, and T.S. Eliot. (My friends seem to quote either Ahtun-Re or Tony Montana.) Purslane decides to go back to high school and make something of herself. Purslane spends a lot of time reading inscriptions inside Lorraine’s paperbacks. Like the back of the Declaration of Independence, there is a secret to be uncovered.

Lawson keeps writing his book about Bobby’s life. Why? I don’t know. Bobby was a lionized professor and Lawson his pet student. What did Bobby do that would merit a biography? And for some reason, in this day and age, without a computer or even a typewriter, Lawson keeps writing and then burning his manuscript.

BOBBY LONG is the feature film directorial debut of Shainee Gabel, who wrote the screenplay based on Ronald Everett Capps’ novel, “Off Magazine Street.” Why Gabel chose this “nothing happens” novel to adapt is a mystery. Travolta gets to show off his, as some cinema pundits like to say, “acting chops.” He’s playing “old,” but is still virile in his attitude. He flirts with waitresses and sleeps naked. He also sings to an enraptured circle of friends. Of course, even with a bum black toe and old man’s gait, he dances with Scarlett.

Travolta’s previously reported diva-like demands must have been put aside for this movie. I commend him for taking a character part and trying mightily to add dimensions not explored in the screenplay. It is a foggy story wrapped around Southern gothic haze. What the Hell is the relationship between Long and Lawson surviving on? And the secret? Well, it should have been more evident and perhaps more challenging. So it’s a movie about weak characters who get sparked by the arrival of a hot teenager. If anything can inspire men to get up and get dressed, it’s a petulant teenager played with open-mouth by Scarlett Johansson.

(Scarlett keeps getting older men as co-stars: Bill Murray, Colin Firth, and now Travolta. Whose wish-fulfillment is at work here?)

But what bothered me – it’s movie-making dogma and here it was again – at the end of any movie starring a male star playing a slob – he will be shown cleaned up and once again glamorous. The rule states that you must not leave the theater remembering the star as old and unkempt. Bobby Long gets all gussied up in a suit, combs his hair, and shaves. The Universe made right, it is now safe to leave the theater.


Credits:
Director and screenwriter: Shainee Gabel
Producers: Paul Miller, David Lancaster, Bob Yari
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production supervisor: Sharon Lomofsky
Costume designer: Jill Ohanneson (cq)
Editors: Lee Percy, Lisa Fruchtman
Composer: Nathan Larson

Cast:
Bobby Long: John Travolta
Purslane: Scarlett Johansson
Lawson: Gabriel Macht
Georgianna: Deborah Kara Unger
Cecil: Dane Rhodes

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