3 stars (out of 4)
When we first see Bobby Long (John Travolta), we don't see his face but rather his blackened big toe, wrapped in a smiley-face Band-Aid.
"A Love Song for Bobby Long" is one of those indie showcases that allows actors to make themselves vulnerable and ugly, just in time for Oscar season.
But even if you're cynical about stars setting aside their $20 million paychecks to do accolade-attracting "art" films, "Bobby Long" can enchant you. It's a film that feels lived in, confident despite its conventions.
In his best role in years, Travolta plays the title character, a silver-headed alcoholic living in squalor with fellow drunk Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht, in a breakout role) in a rotting New Orleans slum. Upon the death of their benefactor, a drug-addled blues singer, her estranged daughter Purslane (Scarlett Johansson) arrives to complicate matters.
"Bobby Long" evokes the work of both Tennessee Williams and John Steinbeck, though its emotional geography seems closer to Steinbeck's "Tortilla Flat" or even "Cannery Row," which feature motley bands of good-hearted, worldly drunks.
But Bobby and Lawson are more than literate, they're academics--a former professor and student sharing a long-marinating secret. Alcohol hasn't been able to kill it, but they see Purslane, a high school dropout, as their possible penance. A grubby, rag-tag family is born.
Although it's not difficult to predict "Bobby Long's" melodramatic trajectory, writer/director Shainee Gabel (working from the novel by Ronald Everett Capps) fashions a respectable yarn, making us forget Travolta's strapped-on Southern accent and star power, even though he never truly shakes that trademark disarming smile.
"Bobby Long" also allows Johansson a greater range than she's been allowed in melancholy, buttoned-down roles in "Ghost World" and "Lost in Translation." Purslane initially hates the often-profane Bobby, then sees her roommates as a way to understand her absentee junkie mother. A few more characters like this one, and she'll overcome any perception of her as Hollywood's new "it" girl and be recognized as a formidable screen talent.
Playing Bobby's long-suffering roomie, Macht offers the most convincing accent of the bunch and effectively locks horns with Travolta's volcanically unpredictable temperament. He essentially gets to play good cop to Bobby's crumbling bad cop in an artificial family that doesn't need another alpha male.
But even as Purslane pretties up their homestead and is politely blackmailed into completing high school, Bobby and Lawson can't overpower ghosts that have been haunting them for years. Redemption is still possible, especially inside their Steinbeckian support system, but not by overcoming those ghosts. Rather, it's learning to live with them that may provide salvation for the trio.
"A Love Song for Bobby Long"
Written and directed by Shainee Gabel; based on the novel "Off Magazine Street" by Ronald Everett Capps; photographed by Elliot Davis; production design by Sharon Lomofsky; edited by Lee Percy and Lisa Fruchtman; produced by David Lancaster, R. Paul Miller and Bob Yari. A Lions Gate Films Inc. release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:59. MPAA rating: R (language, including some sexual references).
Bobby Long - John Travolta
Purslane Hominy Will - Scarlett Johansson
Lawson Pines - Gabriel Macht
Georgianna - Deborah Kara Unger
Cecil - Dane Rhodes
Junior - David Jensen