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Photograph by Ron Philips

Big Easy Speakeasy: John Travola plays a hard-drinking writer in 'A Love Song for Bobby Long.'

More Kudzu Than Kudos

The New Orleans weather is wiser than the emotions in 'A Love Song for Bobby Long'

By Richard von Busack

SENTIMENT for New Orleans flourishes like kudzu in A Love Song for Bobby Long. In the title role, John Travolta hits the hush-puppy accent hard, playing a Southern drinker with a writing problem.

Bobby Long is a defrocked college lit professor who spends his days sipping in a splintery riverside house on a cul de sac. It's a decaying three-room place that the Formosa termites haven't quite finished devouring. The house belonged to his dear friend Lorraine, a noted singer/songwriter who has just died of unspecified causes. When not lounging in this funky home, Bobby spends his time across the street in the overgrown vacant lot, holding court with his guitar, playing "Barbry Allen" to the neighborhood characters.

Bobby's sidekick is his ex-student Lawson (Gabriel Macht), whom he has handpicked as his biographer. For nine years, the pair have been dissipating themselves in the Crescent City, not getting any writing done to speak of. Meanwhile, Lawson has a low-temperature thing going with the barkeep (Deborah Kara Unger) at their neighborhood lounge, The Howling Wolf.

Into this trouble-free life comes Lorraine's daughter, Purslane—"Pursy"—played by girl du jour Scarlett Johansson. Bobby and Lawson do their best to lie to the long-estranged girl, implying that Lorraine willed the house to the three of them to share. Settling in like the odd trio, they make room for one another.

Because Pursy never finished high school, she's not impressed with Bobby's playing of the erudition card—particularly when she sees him drinking tomato juice and beer together in the morning. And Lawson's deference to the old man also wears her patience; she rightly suspects that the two are linked by some kind of obligation she doesn't know about. Over the course of a year, the life lessons fly back and forth. And Pursy learns that her parents didn't abandon her after all.

Johansson, who is usually more cloudy than fair and warmer, is mellowed by the Louisiana humidity. And she yields up a melting slice of cheesecake, turning to the camera cradling her heavy breasts in her hands. Aside from this slow turn—our heroine shocked, shocked to be caught by Lawson as she is putting on her clothes—A Love Song for Bobby Long's other revelations are less than startling.

The film is based on the novel Off Magazine Street, by Rod Everett Capps. Hopefully, the book rings truer than Macht's narration. Watching Shainee Gabel's molasseslike film—sweet, sticky, slow, some small traces of sulfur in the taste—made me think of another irascible writer. I mean Manny Farber, that exacting critic who sometimes claimed to watch films to study the shapes onscreen. (Once Farber judged, "The only interesting shape in Lawrence of Arabia is a camel.")

In honor of Farber, let's observe that the cloudscapes in A Love Song for Bobby Long are really something and could not have been caught anywhere else but at the tail end of the Mississippi. Provided he has shelter, time to spare and a drink, the visitor can get an unmatched show in the heavens over New Orleans. There, above the ominous high-tension electrical towers, gather an armada of thunderheads riding up from the gulf. Then comes, in Jonathan Franzen's words, "the great theater of a good dinnertime blowout, storms crowded into the 50-mile radius of the radar's sweep like big spiders in a little jar."

Certainly, there's a sense here of the vast skies, the heavy air, the rusty wrought iron, the gravel paths atop the levees, the forlorn Irish brick churches. The characters have a wealth of time for sitting on the porch. There is not one Starbucks logo in this entire movie. "Is it romantic?" asks Pursy about New Orleans, and Lawson responds, "It has its moments."

The film could have been wiser if it let the weather speak for itself and cut back the dialogue and poetic narration. Lawson's affair with the waitress is plainly a red herring, and squabble soon turns into affectionate squabble and then into situation-comedy shtick.

Though made up with cotton-colored hair and red eyes, Travolta seems in the right physical shape to portray a broken-faced, remorseful drunk. Pale makeup and stubble don't disguise Macht's rude health, however. Finally, Johansson looks like she may have seen a single-wide trailer once in a movie—this, no matter how many times Gabel poses the actress watching TV and eating peanut butter out of a jar with a soup spoon.

Southern drunks are famously full of good stories, but Travolta's dialogue is basically Bartlett's Quotations interspersed with a monologue about his discovery of what the word "pussy" means. This long pièce de résistance is actually a stale piece of 1950s-style boldness.

And there may be more in the tap. Negotiations continue about making a film of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, as well as more progress on The Confederacy of Dunces front, with, sigh, Will Ferrell as Ignatius J. Reilly. A Love Song for Bobby Long's distinction is what's up front in it: a series of noble New Orleans locations that haven't been spoiled yet.

A Love Song for Bobby Long (R; 119 min.), directed by Shainee Gabel, written by Gabel, based on the novel by Ronald Everett Capps, cinematography by Elliot Davis and starring John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson, opens Friday.

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From the January 26-February 1, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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