Love Song for Bobby Long, A (2004): Travolta as a Drunk Literature Professor

In A Love Song for Bobby Long, Shaine Gable’s new indie, John Travolta renders a hammy performance as a drunkard literature professor–not the most obvious piece of casting.

There are few characters–three major and one supporting–which makes for a narrative with a very narrow scope.

Worst yet, the characters’ evolution and the story’s progression are rather predictable, based on familiarity with this type of literature.

Once you get past these obstacles, Love Song, a variant of a typically Southern tale, though not Gothic, reveals its modest merits. The best reason to see the picture is Scarlett Johansson, in yet another astonishing performance, on par with her accomplishment in Lost in Translation. Johansson, whose range and experience are impressive for her age, is a major talent to watch.

Johansson plays Purslane Hominy Hill, a high school dropout who, upon hearing of her mother’s death, returns to New Orleans for the first time in years. Ready to reclaim her childhood home, Pursy expects to find it abandoned. She is therefore shocked to discover that’s inhabited by two of her mother’s friends: Bobby Long (Travolta) and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), a pair of literate alcoholics

Bobby, the elder and drunker, was once a popular English professor at a big (unnamed) Southern university. When first seen, the white-haired, unkempt Bobby is walking around the house in a bathrobe, while drinking vodka and chain-smoking. Lawson, the slightly more sober sidekick, was Bobby’s star pupil, now struggling with writing his first novel.

Travolta gives a glib, hammy, showy performance that contains his facile charm. In his interpretation, Bobby’s guilt and self-loathing are buried underneath an ambiguous grin that conveys both self-admiration and self-contempt.

The two men are bound by more than a mentor-student relationship, though the specific nature of their bond is at first unclear. The duo waste away their days playing name and quote and dreaming about their Parisian future, when Lawson finally publishes his “great” book and becomes rich and famous.

Pursy is not an idealized figure, either. She begins as a jaded teenage loner. Working as a waitress, Pursy lives in a trailer home, spending her time watching surgery and cooking shows while consuming junk food.

Love Song is the kind of film in which revelations are made and secrets undisclosed. Hence, it turns out that Pursy’s mother has left the entire house for her daughter, not just one third of it, as Bobby claims. In their first encounters, intrigued by the bright Pursy, Bobby first tries to seduce her, and, when unsuccessful, he tries to evict her.

Who are the characters Losers Dreamers Are they destroyed or salvaged by books Is booze a way of dealing with their failure, or sheer escape There are no clear answers to these questions. The whole movie and its characters seem to be inspired by American novelists, perhaps a result of the script’s source material, Ronald Everett Capps’s manuscript, Off Magazine Street, soon to get published.

Though New Orleans functions as the larger milieu, most of the film is set indoors, within the dilapidated house. Indeed, the colorful streets of New Orleans, and the cemetery, serve as atmospheric backdrop.

Despite the characters toughness, at heart, Love Song is a soft, touchy-feely tale of redemption, drenched in alcohol, Southern literature and movies, with a hint of romanticism about the potential allure of bohemian life.

If Gable is less successful at conveying lyricism, she’s good at writing realistic and intelligent dialogue. Hence, when Bobby asks to put his drinks on his tab, the bartender Georgianna (Deborah Kara Unger) says: Bill, Tab sounds like you might pay it someday.

These broken men, whose lives took a wrong turn, are rooted in the dilapidated house, encouraged only by Lawson’s faltering ambitions to write a novel about Bobby’s life. Having no intention of leaving, Pursy, Bobby, and Lawson are all forced to live together. As time passes, their tenuous, makeshift arrangement unearths buried personal secrets that challenges their bonds, and reveals just how inextricably intertwined their lives are.

An emotionally stirring melodrama, Love Song is a labor of love for writer-director Gable, a documentarian who co-directed the cross-country odyssey Anthem, and spent five years on developing and securing funds for Love Song. Gable’s experience prepared her well for the challenge of directing solo her feature debut. She shows talent for conveying the specifics of how her characters speaks, what their looks and mannerisms are.

Gable shows a community built around corner bars, frequented by the same people day after day, from morning till night. The film is set in a “forgotten” neighborhood, populated by people seldom seen in American movies. In the characters of Bobby, and alcoholic professor who has given up on his former life, and Pursy, a teenager with no parents or education, Gable explores flawed yet complex people. They are self-destructive characters that filmmakers and viewers alike might easily discount, prejudge, and disapprove of.

Love Song shows the conservative forces that undercut to rescue and preserve the best elements of the Southern tradition of morality, decency, and tranquility. It’s a movie about the need to restore family and community, as represented by history, custom, and tradition. Given its tragicomic twists and semi-Gothic peculiarities, Love Song recalls the stomping grounds of Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams.

I don’t what to overpraise the film, which is really mediocre, by grounding it firmly in the Southern literary tradition, one that reveals attraction to violence and subversion, yet shows an equally strong desire to preserve decorum and community.

Love Song can be faulted for wanting to have it both ways: At once a critique of the bourgeois family and a restoration of that family. Early on, the characters’ lives are presented in a negative light, an experience to be avoided, but it’s reversed at the end, when the film reaffirms traditional values. Unlike films that depict troubled families and families in state of turmoil, ultimately, Love Song cherishes the centrality and unity of family at all costs, even at the expense of personal fulfillment.

Love Song reverses the generational equation. What we get here is not father (Bobby) knows best, but younger woman (Pursy) knows better. The film suggests that it’s Pursy who winds up teaching both men about life.

Which brings me to Pursy’s character as a misfit and Love Song’ use of the paradigm of the outsider. Johansson creates a wonderful portrait of a teenager who’s blunt without being cynical, tough without being rude, insecure and troubled but not dysfunctional. Hovering around womanhood, Pursy still clings to her youth, at one point reminding Bobby that she’s still just a kid.

In Love Song, since the whole family is deviant, there is no contrast to another, normative unit. Moreover, the figure of the outsider is usually a disruptive force whose arrival is a catalyst for crisis, forcing the town-dwellers to look deeper within them and become more honest. Typically, the outsider imports disorder into an apparently stable social order.

In Love Song, the outsider-stranger is imbued with almost magical powers over a previously deviant and unchanging community. Pursy embodies the loner/intruder who enters a closed social world only to disrupt that world. As a catalyst, she releases that unit’s repressed hostilities and unlaundered secrets. Pursy is a scared misfit, elevated to the stature of a superior human being, a resident endowed with the powers of spiritual salvation.

The novelty is that usually the potent outsider is a male whereas here it’s a female. As soon as Pursy enters the family circle, comprised of Bobby and Lawson she changes the logic of all the relationships from a dyad to a triad. Moreover, there’s integration at the end: Pursy the outsider doesn’t leaves the unit but is integrated into it. She transforms the dwellers of that world as much they transform her.