In "A Love Song for Bobby Long," Scarlett Johansson plays Purslane Hominy Will, a high school dropout who returns to New Orleans after her musician mother's death to find a pair of highly literate alcoholics living in the house she thought she'd inherited. Eventually, it's revealed that Bobby Long (John Travolta), the elder and drunker of the two, was once a popular English professor at a big Southern university (either Duke or Auburn, if his sweatshirts are anything to go by) and that Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), his younger, marginally more sober sidekick, formerly his star pupil, is now his great white hope. (They have none, in other words.)
But their illustrious past is nowhere in evidence when Pursy, a tough-girl waitress fond of toggling between cooking and surgery shows while wallowing in piles of junk food, shows up on their doorstep after the funeral. Shuffling around the house in a bathrobe, Bobby mainlines vodka and generic cigarettes, alternately trying to seduce and evict his new housemate, to whom the deceased has, in fact, left the entire property. (And not, as Bobby maintains, just one-third of it.)
Lawson is his reluctant partner in crime: Clearly, the two are bound by more than just their mentor-student relationship, though it's unclear for a long time what that is. They waste away their days playing "name that quote" and dreaming about the Parisian future that awaits them when Lawson finally publishes his book. Director Shainee Gabel has a light enough touch as to ensure that we're never quite certain if they take themselves -- or their Great American novelist circa 1920 fantasies -- entirely seriously, but Bobby and Lawson might as well be a pair of modern-day male Bovaries: as wrecked by books as they are by booze.
Set in New Orleans and based on a soon-to-be published manuscript, "Off Magazine Street," by Ronald Everett Capps, Gabel's feature debut is, deep-down, a redemptive makeover story drenched in alcohol, Southern literature and the damp romanticism of the bohemian lush life in New Orleans. A lovely noble rot pervades the film in much the same way that it does the city, a longtime repository of lost-cause romanticism. If there's something a little bit moldy about the setup (drunken literary types, hope on the doorstep, healing from beyond the grave), the movie is no less charming or involving for it, and it's no less pleasant to succumb to its wayward allure and wastrel lyricism.
Among other things, the characters in "A Love Song for Bobby Long" really know how to turn a phrase, in itself a pleasure so rare it all but demands any flaws be forgiven. Even minor exchanges crackle with intelligence and wit, as when a bartender, pointing out the flaw in Bobby's directive to "put it on my tab," says, "Bill. Tab sounds like you might pay it someday."
Familiar as they seem at first, the characters grow and deepen as the movie proceeds, until they're no longer familiar at all. There's something hard to pinpoint about Travolta that suits the character of Bobby perfectly: glibly, hammily self-aware, he seems to revel in his own magnetism and facile charm, and dislike it in equal measure.
Bobby's guilt and self-loathing are well-buried underneath his dimpled grin and dazzling oratorical style, but he has a hard time forgiving himself for being liked.
The movie's engine is Bobby's sentimental education -- Bobby may be Socrates to Lawson and Pursy's pair of Platos, but it's Pursy who winds up teaching the men a thing or two about life.
In Pursy, Johansson brings to life the kind of teen character we rarely see on screen. She's blunt without being sarcastic, smart without being smart-alecky and confident in her own insecurity. Hovering on the edge of childhood, she (quite realistically) clings to her youth; reminding an unforgivably crass Bobby early on that, at 18, she's still just a kid. Johansson makes this look like a revelation.
'A Love Song for Bobby Long'
MPAA rating: R for language including some sexual references
Times guidelines: Bobby Long (John Travolta) hits on Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson).
John Travolta...Bobby Long
Scarlett Johansson...Pursy Will
Gabriel Macht...Lawson Pines
Deborah Kara Unger...Georgianna
Destination Films and El Camino Pictures present a Crossroads Films and Bob Yari production, released by Lions Gate Films. Writer-director Shainee Gabel, based on the novel "Off Magazine Street" by Ronald Everett Capps. Executive producers Brad Krevoy, Randall Emmett, George Furla. Producers Bob Yari, R. Paul Miller, David Lancaster. Director of photography Elliot Davis. Editors Lee Percy, Lisa Fruchtman. Production Designer Sharon Lomofsky. Costume Designer Jill Ohanneson. Music Nathan Larson. Art director Adele Plauche. Set decorator Leonard Spears. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
In selected theaters.