starring John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, Gabriel Macht, Deborah Kara Unger
screenplay by Shainee Gabel, based on the novel Off Magazine Street by Ronald Everett Capps
directed by Shainee Gabel
by Walter Chaw Scarlett Johansson's character in Shainee Gabel's Faulknerian idiot man-child of a Southern Gothic A Love Song for Bobby Long is named "Pursey," which strikes me as the least lascivious but still accurate way to describe the suddenly-gorgeous starlet. Though she's adequately attired in her country-fried accent and long, hot summer finery, truth be told, she's already too good for this kind of material--a compliment that sheds light on her co-stars (John Travolta, Gabriel Macht), who are, to a one, not up to the film's desperate pretensions. In A Love Song for Bobby Long, see, every other line of dialogue is either a George Sand quote or a drawling, laconic narrative voiceover. (If it weren't overlit and lousy with drowsy exteriors, I would have mistaken it for another Clint Eastwood film.) And if you don't have a strong sense of self-awareness, you have no place in the sort of turgid julep this post-Tennessee Williams potboiler serves up as refreshment.
Pursey finds out a few days late that her promiscuous lounge-rat of a mother has passed on to that big honkytonk in the sky, leaving her a clapboard house and a pair of boarders: titular Bobby (Travolta) and his teaching assistant for life, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht). First indication that we're headed for the rocks is the realization that both of the lead male characters have names ("long" and "pines") that suggest melancholic desire; second is that the giant secret of the film is obvious to everyone but the emotional toddlers in the audience the instant we see the whole cast assembled together in one room. The project has "student workshop" written all over it, dashed together as it is with shortcuts and weak transitions and surveying, literally, the relationship between an old drunk/once brilliant teacher and his prize student/biographer. (The title of Pines's work-in-progress, he said with eyes rolling skyward, is also the title of the film.) Visions of The Life of David Gale do a little clog-dance on the brainpan.
So the men keep a stupid secret from the girl, which the girl will inevitably discover to force the third act; a running conceit about the sanctity of reading reveals another stupid secret that forces the climax; and Travolta spends the whole thing strumming his GEE-tar and talking like a gentrified Vinnie Barbarino. A Love Song for Bobby Long is an embarrassing film, self-absorbed to the point of being auto-devouring. It's bloated and talky, yet so insubstantial that it flits away like a fat autumn firefly the moment it's out of whichever unfortunate's mouth's had to expel it. Showboat-y and staid, too, it works as a freshman lit syllabus if it works at all--showing off the extent to which Gabel's well-read as well as the limits of her education. There's cachet in bashing Steinbeck and quoting Hemingway, but there's also a point where you come to realize that the passages we hear from the allegedly brilliant book (and the weepy speech Bobby delivers at Pursey's graduation) are almost as godawful as everything else in the film, suggesting that Gabel either just got a copy of Bartlett's or set the bar too high. A Love Song for Bobby Long turns out to be Mr. Holland's Opus: you worked your whole life for this? Originally published: December 31, 2004.