Upon hearing of her estranged mother's death, aimless Pursy (Scarlett Johansson) travels from her trailer park in Florida to New Orleans to attend the funeral. When she arrives, she finds two men living in her mother's house: Bobby Long (John Travolta), a former college professor turned alcoholic, and his teaching assistant turned alcoholic, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht, "The Recruit"). The two drunks manage to con their way into staying at the house, but in doing so, they allow Pursy to complicate their lives through her post-mortem soul searching. In the process, the three become a semi-family, which the distant and self-medicating Bobby cannot handle.
I'm convinced that New Orleans life is one of the hardest experiences to capture correctly on film. Most filmmakers tend to overcompensate, reveling in the sludgy drawl, the red-beans-and-rice atmosphere, and the heavily covered French quarter area. The legendary location is a powerful lure, no doubt, and "A Love Song for Bobby Long" (IMDb listing) is the latest film to become caught up in the details of the region, but not the heart of it.
Taken from the novel by Ronald Everett Caps, "Bobby Long" is an unremarkable character piece written and directed by newcomer Shainee Gable. The film has the production quality of a TV movie and Gable attacks the material in a pedestrian way, which does nothing to spark this loosely wound drama. Gable has difficulty luring the audience in with her direction or her screenwriting, leaning heavily on a supposed "whopper" of a twist ending which, while endearing and sweetly performed, can be seen coming from a mile away. Sad to say, I thought this was the point for a large portion of the film, but I later realized that Gable wanted her climactic reveal to shock her viewers. She missed the boat on that one.
Another problematic element is Gable's treatment of the lower-class stereotypes that parade around her story. It's one thing to try to capture that elusive feel of the impoverished and drunk in New Orleans, but did one of characters have to sit barefoot in a dry kiddie pool nursing a beer? And are we to believe that Pursy, in Scarlett Johansson form, sits around all day eating spoons of peanut butter dipped in M&Ms (apparently the definitive white trash treat)? This side of "Bobby Long" comes off as cartoonish and insulting. It also successfully neuters the significant emotional work that Gable attempts to build in the film's second half.
If "Bobby Long" is worthwhile for anything it would have to be the performances. Teetering on the edge of parody, John Travolta barely passes by with his thick Naw'lins accent. Travolta becomes more comfortable with the script as the film rolls along, and his portrayal of an educated drunk, while incredibly odd at first, starts to feel organic at just the right moment. Travolta is good here, but he's lucky to survive Gable's anvil touch. Scarlett Johansson fares much better, if only because she isn't saddled with the self-conscious burden of having to portray a boozehound. The chemistry between the two actors is agreeable, and they deliver the pathos required to make the ultimate connection between them. Without their pleasing but mild work this film would be instantly forgettable.
Filmfodder Grade: C-