Freshly divorced and her daughter now in college, Dixieland and Cajun music fan Mae and a girlfriend drove her Volkswagen from Colorado to attend Jazz Fest. The friend flew home; Mae stayed. She waited tables for awhile, too, but found she could make more money as a house cleaner. She scrubbed floors, sinks and toilets for Uptown lawyers, doctors and business people and danced the night away at Tipitina's. She was 50 before she began to worry that she'd done less with her English degree than she should have.
New Orleans has that kind of narcotic effect on people. And at its best, writer-director Shainee Gabel's A Love Song for Bobby Long captures the anesthetizing decadence that has so long made our city a mecca for people either willfully or negligently seeking a pleasant oblivion.
The film is loosely adapted from the novel Off Magazine Street by Fairhope, Ala., resident Ronald Everett Capps -- his son, singer-songwriter Grayson Capps, provides music for the soundtrack. A Love Song for Bobby Long is the story of two highly educated derelicts wasting away in the Big Easy and the young woman who pulls them at least partially away from their life of self-indulgence. Bobby Long (John Travolta) is a former Auburn University literature professor, a one-time superstar teacher and dapper man about campus. Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) is Bobby's former teaching assistant and continuing disciple. Lawson is working on a book that Bobby edits, praises as a masterpiece and sometimes devilishly criticizes.
A tragic event a decade ago sent these two literati fleeing from the libraries and classrooms of eastern Alabama to the smoky sanctuaries of the music clubs and bars in New Orleans. There they met the legendary chanteuse Lorraine Wills, with whom they ended up living. But Lorraine is dead from a drug overdose now, and Bobby and Lawson spend a lot more time drinking than they do writing or reading.
Complications arise from Lorraine's will. She's left the dilapidated house, in which Bobby and Lawson continue to reside, to her estranged 18-year-old daughter, Pursy (Scarlett Johansson). But when Pursy journeys from her trailer park home in Florida to attend her mother's funeral (for which she arrives a day late), Bobby and Lawson lie to her and conspire to drive her away. The film is weak in explaining why Pursy determines to stay and share a house with two such thoroughgoing deadbeats, but she does. And thereby begins the formation of a dysfunctional "family" that no doubt thrives in the world of fiction much better than it does in real life. Pursy chides her housemates for drinking too much, and Bobby and Lawson convince her to go back to school to complete her high school diploma. Scoundrels though they be, they are men of considerable knowledge, and their pleasure in directing Pursy's studies is palpable and redemptive.
On the whole, Bobby Long doesn't rise to the level of its players. The script is thin, needlessly drawn out and, at a full two hours, too long by a quarter. New Orleanians will choose between snorting and snarling at the picture's fractured rendering of our urban geography. The film finally reveals the tragedy that brought Bobby and Lawson to New Orleans, but the revelation is convoluted and unconvincing. I'd much sooner believe that these guys were fired for some on-campus act of moral turpitude. The movie closes with a second revelation about an "unsuspected connection" between key characters. Only every viewer paying even the scantest attention has seen this coming from the opening credits. So see this film for its three compelling lead performances (along with notable support from such New Orleanians as Dane Rhodes and Carol Sutton). Though Travolta is white-haired, unshaven and so disheveled you can almost smell his scraggly character, he nonetheless pulls off his incessant literary quotations with such a twinkly gleam of charm that he's entirely believable as a lit prof gone to seed. Macht's role is less showy, and the script never makes clear the intensity of Lawson's devotion to Bobby. We may as well think for a time they must be lovers. But Macht makes the Lawon's lack of resolve work. He's like my friend Jerry, a sleepwalker who may soon awake to a more fruitful life. Golden Globe nominee Johansson isn't given a lot to work with, either, but you can't take your eyes off her. Save for Pursy's youthfulness and an innocence underlying her tough exterior, we can't always explain her actions. But Johansson makes us root hard for her.