A Love Song for Bobby Long
Director : Shainee Gabel
Screenplay : Shainee Gabel (based on the novel Off Magazine Street by Ronald Everett Capps)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : John Travolta (Bobby Long), Scarlett Johansson (Pursy Will), Gabriel Macht (Lawson Pines), Deborah Kara Unger (Georgianna), Dane Rhodes (Cecil), David Jensen (Junior), Clayne Crawford (Lee), Sonny Shroyer (Earl), Walter Breaux (Ray), Carol Sutton (Ruthie), Warren Blosjo (Sean), Bernard Johnson (Tiny)
We never see Lorraine Will at any point in A Love Song for Bobby Long, but her presence haunts every frame of the film and very nearly dictates the lives of those she left behind. A blues singer and local legend in the smoky back-alley bars of New Orleans--where legends are both cheap and rare--Lorraine is the kind of woman who leaves a lasting mark on every person with whom she comes into contact, damning them to an eternity of talking about her, which is why we never see her: Her legend defies representation, and had we seen her embodied by any actress, no matter how wonderful or clever, it would have been a let-down.
Living in the void Lorraine left behind is Bobby Long (John Travolta), a former academic superstar who is slowly deteriorating in the dilapidated house he shared with her. Bobby has long since given up on life, and it's hard to tell whether he is perpetually drunk on booze or the poetry of the world's great writers whom he constantly quotes. Living with Bobby is Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), his former teaching assistant and protégé who has followed his mentor down life's path, no matter how far down it goes. For years Lawson has been working on a great opus about Bobby's life, and both men have staked their futures on it, however unlikely it is to be published.
Their lives are unduly disrupted by the appearance of Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson), Lorraine's 18-year-old daughter who shows up in New Orleans one day after the funeral. A high-school drop-out who has been living with a slacker boyfriend in a trailer park in Florida, Pursy would seem to have even less going for her than Bobby and Lawson. However, she is her mother's daughter, and even though we never see Lorraine, we get a sense of her spark in Pursy, who is bullheaded because life has mistreated her, but internally soft at heart. She ends up staying at the house with Bobby and Lawson, partially because she has nowhere else to go, partially because her mother left one-third of the house to her, and partially just to spite Bobby, with whom she has an immediately antagonistic relationship.
But, wouldn't you know that the odd threesome slowly but surely develops into a family, albeit an odd and sometimes dysfunctional one? Bobby and Lawson, having wasted away their own lives, realize that Pursy still has a chance to make something of herself, and they convince her to go back to school. She offers the spark of possibility in the darkness of loss. Pursy's name, taken from the flowering weed Golden Purslane, suggests both her tenacity and her beauty, both of which Bobby and Lawson can appreciate, even in their drunken haze. But, improvement cuts both ways, and Pursy convinces Lawson to cut down on the booze and even softens up Bobby's coarseness.
As a meandering piece of soft-hearted Southern gothic, A Love Song for Bobby Long is diverting enough. First-time feature director Shainlee Gabel has clearly boned up on the oddly beautiful grotesquerie of Southern literature, with its lost souls and broken hearts, epitomized in the film's central placement of Carson McCuller's The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Gabel has a good eye for local color, and she uses New Orleans to great effect, conveying a sense of loneliness and lost dreams amid the humidity and open skies. Too many times, though, she uses Lawson as a voice-over narrator, less to convey ideas and thoughts than to pontificate on the atmosphere, which drains the visuals of their life by interpreting them for us.
A Love Song for Bobby Long is built on the suppression of secrets, none of which are terribly surprising. Gabel gets much more out of the performances of her actors than the mechanics of the plot. Travolta, in a scenery-chewing, but vanity-free performance, plays Bobby as a man who alternately stands proud and slouches in defeat. He is almost like a ghost in a dingy bathrobe, his thinning hair shockingly white and his skin deadly pale, as if all his blood has been drained out. In some ways, Travolta's performance is a little too showy, but he also brings fine detail to Bobby's quieter moments, conveying in his sunken eyes a lifetime misspent.
Gabriel Macht brings a hint of ambiguity to Lawson, a man who has followed Bobby for so long that he has no idea how to live life for himself. He never quite suggests a man as defeated as Bobby, which is possibly due to his younger age. However, Macht is a bit too handsome for the role, and his rumpled bedhead and slightly scraggly beard are more GQ-stylish than pathetically disheveled.
Scarlett Johansson once again plays the beautiful/innocent source of male redemption, a role she perfected last year in Lost in Translation and The Girl With the Pearl Earring. She's not so innocent this time around, though, something Bobby likes to point out in his meaner moments. Yet, there is no real meanness in Bobby Long. All the fights, quarrels, and barbed insults are just roadblocks on the way to liberation, something every character eventually finds in his or her own way.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Lions Gate Films