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'Bobby Long' Goes South

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page WE39

MAYBE THEY should have called "A Love Song for Bobby Long" something more appropriately descriptive, such as "When Actors Imitating Southern Characters Go Bad."

John Travolta stars as Bobby Long, a college professor from Louisiana who shuffles along at a slow gait. I think this is either because he's drunk or he has gout. His eyes alternate between looking low-lidded and sleepy and then going into a twitch attack. And being, you know, from the South, he tawks lak thee-us. There's one more feature, and this one's the coup de grace: His hair is closely cropped and dyed white. I assume this is meant to signify that Bobby has aged. But it gives us a completely different message: Billy Idol has started his retirement.

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Travolta has been terrific in many movies. This ain't one of them.

In writer-director Shainee Gabel's feature debut, teenager Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) hears about her estranged mother's death and bustles down to the old lady's home in New Orleans, only to learn she is too late for the funeral. She also finds a house in horrifying disarray, overrun by mama's lowlife friends, Bobby Long and his protege, Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht). They're both alcoholics, given to sleep, drink and the competitive exchange of literary quotations. They're also determined to stay right where they are, no matter how much Pursy stamps and pouts.

She moves in. But the men remain. And little by little, their tight-lipped stalemate becomes increasingly friendly, as Pursy goes to school and starts to find herself.

The story (adapted from Ronald Everett Capps's novel, "Off Magazine Street") is supposed to give us two down-at-the-heels characters who could have sprung from the pages of Carson McCullers or Flannery O'Connor. But both are simply lackluster cliches. If only they'd been bona fide cliches with a real Southern boy like Billy Bob Thornton playing the part, this movie might have had a chance. As for Johansson, she doesn't disgrace herself in the accent or acting departments, but she doesn't bring much to this scuzzy table either. All in all, "Bobby Long" makes you want to reach for a classic New Orleans cure -- let's say, a Sazerac in a go-cup -- and drink yourself to sweet oblivion.

A LOVE SONG FOR BOBBY LONG (R, 119 minutes) -- Contains heavy drinking, sexual situations, obscenity and "Southern accents." At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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