'Love Song': A Familiar Yet Tuneless Southern Ditty
Friday, January 28, 2005
In "A Love Song for Bobby Long," John Travolta sets off on the journey from movie star to character actor, a treacherous venture undertaken by many a middle-aged Heartthrob facing the great, gaping What Comes After.
Travolta plays the title character, a dissipated former professor who, as the movie opens, buys a bottle of liquor and imbibes it while shuffling through the streets of New Orleans on his way to a funeral. Wearing a Panama hat, chain-smoking cigarettes, promiscuously quoting Frost and Dickens (and Woody Allen, who goes uncredited for "I'll walk to the curb from here"), Long is a painfully familiar character -- the boozy, hyper-literate philosopher king of Nawlins, a literary and cinematic stereotype long past due for retirement.
"A Love Song for Bobby Long," which was adapted by Shainee Gabel from a novel by Ronald Everett Capps, traffics in nearly every trite cliche of the "colorful" South one can think of, from its pseudo-Gothic aesthetic to its overripe dialogue. The movie co-stars Scarlett Johansson as a teenager who inherits the house Long has been living in for several years; her chief quirk, other than that she lives in a trailer, is that she eats spoonfuls of peanut butter dipped in M&M's and still looks like Scarlett Johansson. Gabriel Macht plays Long's best friend and roommate, a struggling novelist who narrates the story of how the three come to live together and (heaven help us) heal each other's psychic wounds. Johansson's and Macht's characters, by the way, have been given the names Purslane Hominy Will and Lawson Pines, monikers that provide ample evidence of the preciousness that oozes through this film at every gerund-droppin' turn.
Johansson is gorgeous, but she seems too old, too worldly, for the role; Macht is handsome enough to be plausible as her romantic interest. But "A Love Song for Bobby Long" is clearly Travolta's movie, and his pitch to be considered more than just a charismatic concoction of blue eyes, a dimpled chin and animal magnetism. That pitch fails, in part because he's chosen to play caricature rather than a fully realized character, in part because his star quality keeps peeking through. Try as he might to disappear under dyed white hair, a stoop and a day's stubble, he's still Travolta. And there ain't nuthin' wrong with that.