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With: John Travolta, Scarlett Johansson, Gabriel Macht, Deborah Kara Unger
Written by: Shainee Gabel, based on the novel by Ronald Everett Capps
Directed by: Shainee Gabel
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Running Time: 119
Date: 09/02/2004

A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Long' View

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A Love Song for Bobby Longis set near New Orleans among a community of alcoholics, has-beens and screw-ups, where one can get away with shambling down to the neighborhood dive bar while wearing a dingy, once-white suit and no shoes.

John Travolta plays the title character, a drunken former literary professor with fuzzy gray hair. Bobby shares a run-down house with Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), a once-promising writer whom Bobby claims to be mentoring.

Scarlett Johansson co-stars as Pursy Will, a trailer park dweller who inherits the same house from her long lost mother. Pursy moves in and each side begins attempting to intimidate the other into moving out. But of course, the three misfits become fast friends.

The film lazily moves through several little vignettes, each designed to suddenly reveal something new about the characters, even if it's already obvious.

On any movie, a director must decide how much to give away and how much to hold back. It's a fine line, and writer/director Shainee Gabel, who makes her feature debut here, wobbles all over it. When A Love Song for Bobby Long concentrates on moving its plot forward, it aims too wide and clumsily lays bare all its secrets and twists.

Yet at other times, it delivers lovely little scenes that capture a mood and time and place. In one scene Travolta sits around in a circle of lawn chairs, singing songs and drinking beer, for no reason other than that it feels nice.

While attempting a balance between the two kinds of scenes, Gabel fails to find her pacing, and the film goes on way too long, stumbling along for a full two hours. It would have made a powerful short story, similar to the wonderful little Louisiana films Eve's Bayou (1997) and First Love, Last Rites (1998), simply capturing a moment in time.

This uneasy concoction also affects the film's performances. Travolta rasps and slurs through his lines with elegance and enthusiasm, and if it weren't just a tad precious and mannered, it may even resemble another comeback performance for this up-again, down-again actor. Johansson does what she can with this fairly thin role, which doesn't compare to the riches of last year's Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring.

A Love Song for Bobby Long has a lovely surface, but to truly succeed, this film needed a more delicate touch, a feel for the rotted underside of things and for hopeless searching.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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