With John Travolta appearing in more than a few going-through-the-motions roles over the years, it's both jarring and refreshing to see him stubble-faced and crying in a seedy bathroom, saying, convincingly, "I wet myself." It's almost as if, in down-and-out dereliction, he found a role that somehow speaks to him even more than wise guy Chili Palmer.
In "A Love Song for Bobby Long," Travolta plays the title character, a former American literature professor who's dropped out and tuned into vodka and whatever's in that glass. He's living in New Orleans with a younger man (Gabriel Macht), whom we learn was a former teaching assistant of his, a boozy writer trying to turn Bobby's life story into a novel. But the plot is really set in motion hundreds of miles away, in Panama City, Florida ("the redneck Riviera"). There, a young high school drop-out living with a lazy boyfriend learns that the loser didn't even bother to give her a message from Bobby telling that her mother passed away. Though they were estranged (and though we never learn much about the daughter's relationship with her mother), Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlet Johansson) is still understandably miffed. She leaves in a hurry and a huff, hoping to make the funeral.
Instead, she finds this stranger, Bobby, and his protégé, Lawson Pines (Macht), living at her mother's house, and learns that she missed saying good-bye to her mother by a day. The men have more eye contact with each other than hopefuls at a single bar, so it's painfully clear that there's something going on here. "We should tell her," Lawson whispers. "Better than her poking around and finding out the truth." They want her out, and yet, because she's Lorraine Will's daughter, they also want to help her. Lawson opens a suitcase of paperback classics, including The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Great Gatsby, and The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway—books they tell her were important to her mother. After an insulting exchange, during which the men inform her that Lorraine left a third of the house to each of them, and they're not leaving, Pursy grabs the suitcase and heads off. But she only gets as far as the Greyhound bus station, where she devours all of the Carson McCullers classic about a girl who befriends a deaf mute. Apparently inspired, she returns and announces she's going to live with these two alcoholics and be both supportive and confrontational about their stuporous delusions. And the men, meanwhile, become determined that she should somehow go back to school.
In this down-and-out version of "Finding Forrester" meets "Good Will Hunting," the pleasant surprise is that we're not subjected to the standard flashbacks showing Lorraine performing as a singer in New Orleans clubs, interacting with her apparently many lovers and admiring friends, or looming like a warm-fuzzy presence in Pursy's mind. Instead, everything is in the present, with the tension coming from the gradual "reveal" of the story behind the two men's relationship and the down-and-out neighbors who gather in an outdoor tent city to tell stories, play music, and celebrate the dead woman's life.
The writing is smart and the atmosphere (as so often happens with films set in the Big Easy) is thick as a Cajun brogue. There's some nifty footage of New Orleans that doesn't usually appear in cinema, and the opening shot alone shows Bobby leaving the Rock Bottom Lounge and passing through so many different landscapes that it underscores how multicultural New Orleans is, and how seedy and stately dwellings are just a short walk away. But it's the performances that will hold you as spellbound as one of Bobby's tales, told in the savory tradition of Southern storytellers. Bobby is forever quoting the literary (and philosophical) greats, and part of the fun is hearing a full tale that Travolta tells with real southern storytelling flourish (I've had drinks with a few southern writers, and know of what I speak!) and just as much fun to have him scatter those quotes throughout. "Never fight fair with a stranger," he says. "Arthur Miller." "You must work as if you're going to live a hundred years and pray like you were going to die tomorrow," he says. "Benjamin Franklin." Or "Happiness makes up in heighth what it lacks in length. Robert Frost."
First-time director Shainee Gabel based her film on "Off Magazine Street," a novel by Ronald Everett Capps, and she says that she was drawn to Scarlett Johansson because "she radiates wisdom; there's an old soul quality about her." And maybe that's what makes the main trio click as well as they do. Here we have three obviously intelligent but luckless individuals that represent three generations: Bobby in his early fifties, Lawson on the short side of thirty, and Pursy in her late teens. And yet, they interact, because of their circumstances, as if they were on the same level. Lawson learns from Bobby, Pursy learns from Lawson, and Bobby learns from Pursy. Oh, hell, they all learn from each other. Maybe what writer Gertrude Stein said really is true: that we are all the same age, on the inside. Strong performances and writing and that gumbo-thick atmosphere more than make up for the holes in the plot—like, where do these guys get their food and liquor money from, and if Pursy's boyfriend is angry or greedy enough to come all the way to New Orleans to confront her, why does he leave so quickly? I won't say any more, because I don't want to spoil the small reveals, but it's this type of illogical thing that rubs the shine off an otherwise lustrous film.
The film is rated R for language, including sexual references, but that seems awfully harsh. It plays more like a PG-13.
Video: The video quality on this anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio) is very good, mastered in High Definition and with bright colors and wonderful contrasts that are all but necessary for Gabel's stylish shots—ones which often leave some figures wallowing in shadows, while others are bathed in light. There's an art-house director hiding inside Gabel, who manages to capture a visual experience that's typical of foreign and independent films while also allowing the story to all but tell itself.
Audio: Likewise, the sound is excellent, a Dolby Digital 5.1 that doesn't have as much rear-speaker action as I would have liked, to reinforce that New Orleans ambience and pump up the musical volume when the groups get playing, but the side-to-side sound movement is very realistic. Spoken language options are English, French, and Portuguese, with English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles.
Extras: Full-length commentaries by first-time directors are almost always a pleasure, because they're just so excited about the film and so into it that they're willing to share almost everything about the process. Gabel shares the commentary stage with cinematographer Elliot Davis, and they make a good combo, because the visuals play so large a part in this film, as does the music. Gabel tells how, while the film may have been inspired by a novel, she sought to portray Bobby Long as "the personification of New Orleans," celebrating the beauty of decay and romanticism as an illness. The behind-the-scenes feature is also quite good, and all three stars put in an appearance. In fact, the veteran Travolta even credits Johansson for giving him off-camera insights that helped make him a better actor in this film. We learn that they shot at the house in New Orleans three-fourths of the time, and that the changes Pursy made to the house were real. The actors LIVED those changes, we learn, which added to the realism and the comfort level of the actors. And Lorraine? She is represented by the presence of music. It haunts the movie, and the decision to leave her out of the film was absolutely deliberate. As making-of features go, this one is superior because it's more penetrating and interpretive than most, and the Rosas Productions did a fine job on the editing and production.
Bottom Line: All anyone wants is to be loved, really. And this movie plays like a love song for everyone who's ever felt estranged or alone. Johansson's performance is riveting, and Travolta, playing off of her and reveling in the role of an aging, alcoholic sage, turns in one of the best performances of his career. And Macht? The fact that he holds his own with these two says a lot about his performance, and just as much about Gabel's intelligent script and direction. "A Love Song for Bobby Long" may not be a classic, but it's rock-solid and worth your attention.