New Orleans, the setting of writer-director Shainee Gabel’s debut feature, “A Love for Bobby Long,” an adaptation of a Rupert Everett Capps novel, plays as powerful a role as its three principals do. Indeed, “Love Song” is awash in the lonesome, gorgeous compositions by cinematographer Elliot Davis of the city’s lush riverbank and its streets bordered by mullioned arcades. No other American city so charmingly exudes the notion of forlorn dreams as New Orleans, and in setting out to make a movie about marginal, broken-down lives, Gabel understood this perhaps better than the story she wants to tell. Apart from Davis’ painterly work and Gabel’s irresistible use of regional rock and blues, the rest of “Love Song” is told in broad strokes rather than unique shades.
We first see unschooled, creamy-legged Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson) in hot pants flipping TV channels and licking crunchy peanut butter off a spoon in the rundown trailer that she shares with her white-trash jerk of a husband. Pursy has no memory of her mother, Lorraine, but, upon learning of her death, she escapes to New Orleans to claim the house Lorraine left to her. She finds the place already occupied by a pair of typically grizzled misfits. One of them, Bobby Long (John Travolta), a curmudgeonly drunk and erstwhile literature professor, often rhapsodizes about Lorraine, a one-time singing sensation. The other, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), Bobby’s protégé and a would-be writer, is struggling to finish his first novel in his own booze-induced haze.
The trio’s dynamic of domestic squabbling and personality conflicts feels straight out of some made-for-TV soaper, lacking in tension, never stirring up its undercurrents for palpable drama to erupt. Gabel’s script may be well-meaning but her storytelling treads familiar territory as Pursy, Bobby and Lawson learn to shuck off the guilt and shame of their conjoined pasts and, in the lovely glow of redemption, ready themselves for the next chapters in their lives. Gabel has potentially challenging material on her hands but her treatment of it feels too hygienic, mistaking tastefulness for subtlety.
Rather than bore into its characters for something truly distinctive, “Love Song” lingers on the surfaces of jokes, yarns or exchanges that hardly pass for revelation. It amounts to a character study that trades in stereotypes of Southern gothic, little more. Johansson sticks to the saturnine mugging that’s made her so popular and Travolta, while not bad in
the role, feels miscast. The effect of Travolta–one of our most recognizable movie stars–playing a low-life literary boozehound is like that proverbial bull tearing up the china shop. That leaves the lesser-known Gabriel Macht to pick up the slack, and he does a fine job. The actor never champs at the material, never fretting to wring more from Gabel’s bland material than it can provide, conveying more in the slightest shift of expression than either Travolta, in all his ham-fisted straining, or Johansson, in all her glacial preening, can manage.
Gabel aspires to poetry but lacks the storytelling chops to reap it from her milieu. Still, with its closely-felt sounds and images, “Love Song” is an evocative picture-postcard paean to its setting. That, together with its likeable–albeit shallow–characters, makes this a pleasant enough excursion into the bayou.
Written/Directed by: Shainee Gabel
Cast: John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, Gabriel Macht, Deborah Kara Unger