THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG"

A Love Song for Bobby Long is one of those movies about quirky people who do quirky things, quirkily. Films such as this can go one of two ways: either they can coalesce into something deeper and more meaningful (such as Garden State) or they can collapse under their own weight. This one generally follows the latter path, although it is somewhat redeemed by good performances.

Scarlett Johansson plays Pursy Will. From the sound of that name, you can rightly assume that she is another of Hollywoodís stereotypical white trash characters, living in a beat-up trailer with an abusive alcoholic boyfriend. No one named Pursy could ever have any other kind of life in a movie. Upon receiving word that her estranged mother has died, Pursy dumps her man and heads off to New Orleans for the funeral. She doesnít get there in time to attend, but does get word that she has inherited one-third of her motherís house. When she moves in, Pursy discovers that she shares the inheritance with Bobby Long (John Travolta), a washed-up English professor-turned-alcoholic, and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), who is writing a book about Bobby. Or is trying to anyway.

Pursy wants the house for herself but the other two wonít leave. That means becoming uncomfortable roommates. For a time, Bobby and Lawson try to drive Pursy out; she also tries some maneuvers to get them to move. Nothing works. Besides, Bobby is too drunk to go anywhere else. His days consist of drinking and quoting passages from famous writers. Why Lawson would want to write a book about this guy is beyond explanation. As the formula always goes, this uncomfortable situation eventually softens around the edges and the three characters learn Important Life Lessons from each other by the time the film is over.

The main problem with A Love Song for Bobby Long is its pace. Thereís really not enough story here to support a two hour movie. It feels like a short film that has been stretched to feature length. As such, there are long periods of time when nothing is happening. Characters sit in a room and talk, saying the same things they said in the scene before and in the scene before that. The film just plods along at a snailís pace. I kept looking at my watch, unable to believe that time wasnít passing more quickly. Part of the premise is that life has essentially stopped for Bobby Long, and Lawson has been pulled down with the sinking ship. This needed to be portrayed in a more interesting way, though.

Perhaps the picture would have been stronger had it felt like it was going somewhere different. The fact is that the plot revolves around a mystery, specifically the identity of Pursyís father, whom she never knew. The answer to this mystery is apparent to the audience right away, yet it takes Pursy the entire length of the film to figure it out. Because we see whatís coming, thereís no real dramatic interest in watching the movie get there. The situation just breeds impatience on our part. A red herring gets thrown in, but we know the truth. And what of it? The film ends right after the big revelation. It seems to me that the obvious should have been stated half-way through the story. We then could have seen the after-effects, which would certainly have been more compelling. A Love Song for Bobby Long is all beginning and middle; the ending is missing.

I did like the performances, which at least kept me watching. John Travolta is very good as Bobby Long, although the character is such a lazy drunk that itís easy to grow frustrated with him. Call it a case of an actor playing an unlikable character extremely well. The best performance comes from Scarlett Johansson, who transcends her characterís stereotypical qualities. Johansson displays the kind of quiet intensity that she brought to Lost in Translation. While most of the movie tends to keep the audience at armís length emotionally, she draws us in, giving the character unexpected intelligence and sarcasm.

With a stronger screenplay, A Love Song for Bobby Long could have been something special. Iím not sure first-time writer/director Shainee Gabel knew what to do with his premise, though. We get lots of the quirks: a hung-over Bobby quoting famous writers, Lawson trying to write the unwritable, Bobbyís bohemian friends sitting around drinking and playing guitar, everyone bickering over who should get the house and why. These things donít add up to anything more because theyíre not really relatable; itís all the whimsy of a screenplay with no genuine emotional substance added in.

( out of four)


A Love Song for Bobby Long is rated R for language including some sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 59 minutes.

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