A laid-back drama that really gets you involved, even if not a whole lot happens, A Love Song for Bobby Long is a film that is about its characters, not about what they do. In fact, its best moments involve them doing very little at all; instead, they sit around and talk, while we sit there and listen. There’s something endearing about the three leads and the lives they live. Perhaps it’s because, in their own ways, they’re smart — despite their outward appearances.
Primarily set in Louisiana, our story focuses on three individuals living in a run-down house on the outskirts of a small town. Two men live there to start the film: Bobby Long (John Travolta), a former English professor, and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), a “writer.” They’re both drunks and living in this house rent-free. On their doorstep comes Purslane “Pursy” Will (Scarlett Johansson), whose mother used to own this house and live with these two men, but is now dead. She’s just escaped from an abusive relationship and decided to move in here.
There are things that Bobby and Lawson aren’t telling Pursy. We know this almost immediately, as Bobby stops Lawson from spilling the beans. Bobby doesn’t want Pursy living with them, despite being friends with her mother. Why? You’ll have to watch to find out. Bobby is unkind and dismissive toward her, hoping she’ll leave if he exudes a “we don’t want you” vibe. Lawson is kinder, perhaps because he is enamored with her, or maybe because he’s just the nicer of the two.
A Love Song for Bobby Long takes full advantage of its setting. It seems to love the south. Things take their time to develop here. We don’t rush through a plot in order to get to the end, which seems to mimic the way of life in this part of the world — or, at least, how movies seem to portray the south. It allows the film’s pacing to copy the slow-paced lifestyle of its residents. Articulate conversations about all sorts of things can occur without worrying about jumping to the next bit of action. I’m not sure if I could handle that in 100% of films, but whenever it pops up it feels like a treat.
The transition the two male characters go through is fun to watch. As the film progresses, they slowly begin to become accepting of Pursy. They enjoy her company. They want her around. Or so it seems. There’s always those secrets. Are they just trying to gain her favor, or are the feelings genuine. Dialogue exchanges could contain more meaning and additional depth. You have to think. The two drunks are brilliant and Pursy is no intellectual slouch, even though she dropped out of high school.
A fun game that the two male characters play involves rattling off quotes from an author and having the other one guess who said the quote. I’m honestly unsure why this is enjoyable, but it is. Perhaps it’s the assumed intelligence of the audience. In an age where so many movies believe their audience to be … dumber than this analogy, it’s nice to see one that doesn’t pause to say something like this: “T.S. Eliot was an author and he wrote X, Y, and Z.” Even if you don’t know what T.S. Eliot wrote, you don’t feel offended by a movie thinking you’re too stupid for it.
Eventually, A Love Song for Bobby Long comes off the rails. It’s right near the end, when a new reveal comes along — that you’ll probably figure out far before the film wants you to — that it becomes too silly to take seriously. I mean, the reveal makes sense, but how none of the characters could figure it out or even guess about it is ridiculous. The title might give it away; I’m not sure. I think it’s suggestive and you can probably already guess what this reveal is.
John Travolta is probably the perfect actor to play Bobby Long. He’s got the type of personality that allows you to believe he could be a chain-smoking drunk, but he’s also articulate and snappy enough that you can see him as a college professor. He also plays the role with a keen balance between deviousness and kindness, which is a tough role to pull off. He steals the show in this film, even if it’s not “his” movie. (In fact, it’s entirely possible that he has the least screen time of the three leads.)
Scarlett Johansson also shines as Pursy, someone who is just hoping to better her life. The interactions she has with her co-stars are phenomenal. Gabriel Macht is underutilized as the “third wheel,” so to speak — and I don’t mean that in a romantic way — but there are a few scenes when he gets to show off. Supporting work goes to Deborah Kara Unger, although this is primarily a three-person show.
A Love Song for Bobby Long is a slow-moving drama about three people in a dysfunctional family situation in Louisiana. Its characters are interesting, their conversations are engaging and don’t pander, and the actors bring it. It gets a little silly by the end — if only because of how predictable a particular reveal is and how nobody in the movie even considered it — and when it tries to get truly emotional, it doesn’t succeed. But, for the most part, this is an enjoyable movie about these individuals, and I think it’s worth seeing.