In her first stab at narrative drama, writer and director Shainee Gabel has managed to assemble a superstar cast and a seasoned technical team. She spent five years on the project, adapting an unpublished novel written by the father of a friend, working with a clarity of vision and an admirable goal: to bring to life three desperate characters, the kind of people whose stories don’t often get told. And her film, A Love Song for Bobby Long, enjoys a setting drenched in signification (New Orleans), accomplished photography, and several rich personalities. But it never jells. Primarily, it can’t rise above two major weaknesses: a plangent, plaintive script and the inadequacies of John Travolta.
In a trailer park in Florida, Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson) slouches in front of the television, dipping a spoonful of peanut butter into a bag of M&M’s. She’s bored. She’s resigned. She is the picture of trailer-park ennui, only with Hollywood hair. When Pursy’s equally unmotivated boyfriend shows up, they trade hostile remarks. Then he remembers to tell her that her mother died, and she leaps from the couch. In a fury, Pursy packs her bags and heads to New Orleans.
There, she locates her mother’s house and meets the men she must share it with: Bobby Long (Travolta), a crude lush with literary pretensions, and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), a younger companion who, though deep in the drink, has not yet forfeited the entirety of his dignity. Pursy’s mother has left the place to the three of them. It seems that she couldn’t decide between her friends and her child, from whom she was estranged for many years. A rotted bungalow crammed with books and the detritus of two chain-smoking alcoholics, the house is anything but inviting, but like the weed that names her (purslane), Pursy takes root. Thence the conflict: Three characters in flight from themselves, forced to contend with each other and, ultimately, to countenance their own demons. In time, relationships evolve, and the story of what came before comes to light.
Travolta’s character is the eponymous Bobby Long, a man whose name, when slurred in a drunken N’awlins accent, becomes “Babylon.” That’s no coincidence. The type of personage the film intends to evoke is whiskey poet Charles Bukowski, a drunken lout we’re meant to appreciate for his vulgar eloquence, his outré extravagance, his flip-the-bird nonconformity, and his nothing-left-to-lose debauchery. Sure, Bukowski was a raving lunatic, and not to be minded for much, but he made art. Travolta, unfortunately, can’t sink to those depths. Though paunchy and pocked, with whitened hair, he remains a chronic smirker, an anointed son, emanating glitter. He just can’t convey a sense of having lived in the underbelly’s underbelly for years on end, face-down in the bottle and/or the gutter. Worse, Long is supposed to be a former professor, a champion of English literature who quotes Browning, Eliot, and Shakespeare by way of avoidance. Vinnie Barbarino? One attempts to imagine him tucked away in a library carrel, hunched over a line of iambic pentameter — and fails.
Johansson, on the other hand, puts in her usual heroic turn, inhabiting a lost girl with conviction and crunchy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside tenderness. She brings the pout and the fire, but the script is parsimonious: It gives so little to its actors, squirreling away emotion and import in cliché (“Your mama loved you, you know. You meant the world to her”) and overly freighted metaphor (“I like the way bones look on a light box. They’re like portraits, but on the inside”) that there is only so much they can do.
The true star and emotional center of Love Song is Gabriel Macht, playing a former graduate student and protégé of Long, still yoked to him after nine years of sinking further and further into the mud. Macht’s performance is solid and forthright. He’s a condemned man, in a sense, and a lost one, but he holds on to something real inside himself. The film allows us to hope for romantic entanglement between Pursy and Lawson and then, wisely, steers clear.
It’s a shame that more of the film couldn’t be like Macht — patient, intelligent, revealing through actions more than declarations of the obvious. Because it isn’t, we can never quite suspend our disbelief. Instead, we hover a few feet above Bobby Long, watching it happen, watching the actors act. The Big Reveal lacks the power it needs, and the ending rushes through a process that should take its own sweet time. A Love Song for Bobby Long is a first effort, and it makes first-effort mistakes. Still, it’s far from a failure, and there’s plenty of time for Gabel to grow into her confidence.