A Love Song For Bobby Long

on December 29, 2004 by Annlee Ellingson
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In her feature debut, writer-director Shainee Gabel, who previously co-directed the documentary "Anthem," has crafted a wonderfully literary film inspired by a reading list of Southern American literature topped by Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." Like the great writing it references throughout, "A Love Song for Bobby Long" is driven by sensitively drawn characters who are haunted by the past and more intimately connected than they suspect. Unfortunately, Gabel's nuanced script is hampered by miscasting and an at-times heavy hand.

Upon hearing of the death of her mother, a woman she hardly knew, Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson), who is named after a flowering weed and corn because they are gold, packs her few possessions and heads to New Orleans to reclaim her childhood home. She expects it is abandoned, but instead she finds Bobby Long (John Travolta), a former literature professor, and his protégé Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), who is working on a novel about his mentor, comfortably ensconced in the dilapidated building. Bobby tells her that her mother left it to all three of them, and Pursy moves in. But both she and Bobby have the same idea -- to drive the other out -- but gradually the misfit trio form the family that Pursy never had.

The sexual tension between Pursy and Lawson, who is sympathetic to her cause, is as hot and heavy as summer in Louisiana yet remains unconsummated -- a narrative choice that not only is true to the characters but sustains the audience's interest to the end of the film. But the more interesting relationship explores love and intimacy between the men -- teacher and student -- and the co-dependency, guilt and genuine affection that binds them to each other. But a pivotal secret is emphasized too hard and too often for its ultimate payoff.

Unfortunately, without disparaging masterful talent on both counts, Travolta and Johansson simply aren't right for these roles. It's not clear how old Bobby Long is supposed to be, but Travolta seems too young and robust to play a man in the last diseased stage of his life, even with a blondish-white dye job. And Johansson, although about the right age, has an aristocratic air and erudite poise that prevents her from looking or sounding like the underage white trash Pursy is. Macht fares best as a once-privileged academic who's succumbed to the romanticism of New Orleans and the literary life. Starring John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson and Gabriel Macht. Directed and written by Shainee Gabel. Produced by Bob Yari, R. Paul Miller and David Lancaster. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Rated R for language including some sexual references. Running time: 119 min

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