If you’re a fan of the dramatic, southern literature of Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner, A Love Song for Bobby Long will embody everything you enjoy about sweltering southern hysterics while injecting a bit of cynicism and reality into the romanticized notion of the tortured writer. Bobby Long transpires in the world where A Streetcar named Desire and To Kill a Mockingbird take place; that of a slower, steamier, and definitively austere culture that clashes with the ideas of growth and progress in a most gentile way.
A Love Song for Bobby Long is a terribly intense and engaging story about three misfits who come together in a dysfunctional and violently emotional home. Scarlett Johansson plays Perseline Will, a young woman abandoned early in life by her mother. Persy has just inherited the home of her estranged mother, and with it the two men who resided there as her mother’s roommates. Bobby Long and Lawson Pines are two haunted men who drink too much. Bobby Long (John Travolta), former literature professor, is constantly spouting quotes from Frost, Eliot, and other such profoundly complex authors and poets. Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) is his pupil and surrogate son, and slowly is following in Long’s footsteps in a quest to live the decisive “author’s life”, as laid down by the 20th century’s greatest literary craftsmen. (i.e. a life of heavy drinking, smoking, unfullfillment, and reckless emotional irresponsibility) To Persy, this self-destructive behavior is appalling, and hypocritical, as Long and Pines urge her to finish high school and to escape the life they have created. As the story slowly plods along, it is apparent that both Pines and Long are dissatisfied with their existence, lonely, and incapable of escaping the demons that haunt their past. Persy finds out that her own existence, and her mother’s memory, plays an important part in this downward spiral.
Witty banter between Travolta and Johansson is impressive, and relegates Gabriel Macht’s Lawson Pines to a secondary character role. Johansson is a stunningly charismatic actress- She gives Travolta a serious run for his money. She is not intimidated by working with men who have big names in the industry, as she implied in Lost in Translation and now affirms in A Love Song for Bobby Long. John Travolta is incredibly absorbed as Bobby Long. It’s unlike any other role he’s ever done. There is more anger, more intensity, and more genuine fear in his portrayal of Bobby Long than in any other performance he’s ever given (including his role in Urban Cowboy).
This touching, beautiful, romantic, and funny film is hampered by nondescript cinematography and boring production design. With New Orleans at the tips of their fingers, the filmmakers lost many chances of using the city itself as a charcter by deciding to ignore the architecture and atmosphere around them. The film itself need not have been shot on location in New Orleans, since in fact, the only glimpses you see of the city are momentary, fleeting, and inconsequential.
A southern drama, a passionate example of human frailty…this film knows what it is. While paying homage to literary inspirations and the American literary tradition, A Love Song for Bobby Long delves into the real lives of “struggling authors”. Love Song describes the life, and then tears it to pieces to expose it to reality. By un-romanticizing New Orleans, drinking, and writing by showing the loneliness, illness, and emotional decay it causes (not to mention the fact that it rarely produces any literary achievement on the part of the “author”) A Love Song for Bobby Long makes a very good point. “Things are always better in books because they’re books”. They’re not real life. To live a real human existence, to experience life in the fullest, and to ignore the illusions set down in books written many years ago…that is the way to achieve a real basis upon which to create true literary masterpieces.
Through an extremely long, drawn out ending that neither surprises nor disturbs, Love Song delivers its point well. A bit preachy and full of quote-spouting would-be poets, it nevertheless is a film that allows you to feel deeply for the characters. If Sweet Home Alabama had not been a trite piece of crap with no real story, characters, or acting, it might have turned out something like A Love Song For Bobby Long. Ambitious, but able to deliver the goods, A Love Song is a film that both ordinary humans, as well as aspiring authors, poets, and artists, will be able to understand.