Title: A Love Song for Bobby Long
Play time: 1h 59min
Director: Shainee Gabel
Screenwriters: Shainee Gabel
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, John Travolta, Gabriel Macht
A Love Song for Bobby Long is so well-intentioned and heartfelt that it might have been a great film if only it were interesting. There’s no one thing fatally wrong with Shainee Gabel’s feature debut, except perhaps an overarching lack of depth, but the whole thing is so unremarkable and underwhelming as to be unsatisfying. It’s the vague equivalent of a circus performer who sits in a chair.
Ordinarily a movie like this probably wouldn’t have made it very far past the festival circuit, but the presence of Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta guaranteed distribution and some attention (Johansson landed a Golden Globe nomination). The irony is tremendous: Travolta, who has been trying like gangbusters to give his career some momentum, finally finds a juicy indie role to sink his teeth into, and the screenplay is a terrible bore. Johansson’s instincts are harder to impugn, as she seems to simply be continuing down her track of picking eclectic smaller films over bigger budgets and bigger salaries.
Travolta’s performance, as the recipient of the titular serenade, is occasionally affecting and often hilarious. Bobby Long is an English professor who has, for reasons the film promises to reveal, turned into an unemployed alcoholic and lout; Travolta gives him this unbelievable hick accent, and in one extended monologue his repeated enunciation of the word “pussy” must be heard to be believed. That experience almost makes sitting through the film worthwhile.
Scarlett, meanwhile, throws herself headlong into her role, imbuing the movie with more anger, passion and feeling than it deserves — more, really, than it actually has. Her performance isn’t just better than the material, it’s on an entirely different plane, her character itching to veer away from the screenplay’s dead end course. Though sometimes a great performance can boost a film, in this case it only makes it more frustrating; somehow, it’s not a matter of Johansson transcending the film, but of the film failing to live up to her standards.
The plot, which has a lot to do with forgiveness, rebirth, the value of a good education, and all sorts of other nice things, is not only uneventful but hokey and fairly lame. There’s not enough to these characters for them to be able to carry the movie in the absence of anything else going on, which kind of puts a damper on the film’s purported classification as a “character drama.” The wrap-up is awfully pat for a character drama, too; all it’s missing is a “Fin” title card.
Okay, so all the sarcasm may be a tad harsh for such an adorable little indie, but really: there are several great movies out there right now. Granted, by the time A Love Song for Bobby Long reaches your neck of the woods, it may be the January doldrums, but I’m sure some theater somewhere will still be playing The Aviator.