A Love Song for Bobby Long
There is something about the American south that has always attracted writers. The hot sticky nights, lazy days and slow pace of the people draws authors and their audiences in. As a setting for a film it is equally rich with a quality that sets it apart from any other location. The story is centered on a house, one left behind by locally famous blues singer Lorraine Will. Although the film starts after her death and we never get to actually se her we are in her presence for the entire film. Lorraine is the type of character in fiction that leaves a lasting impression without ever having to take the stage. We learn of her through the memories of others and how she became part of their lives. In her will Lorraine left her home to her estranged 18 year old daughter Pursy (Scarlett Johansson). Pursy doesn’t have much going in her life. A high school drop out that gravitates to shacking up with trailer park losers; Pursy claims her inheritance mostly because she is completely out of options.
Once there Pursy discovers that her mother has granted perpetual squatter’s rights to two alcoholic academics, Bobby Long (John Trivolta) and his protégé and one time teaching assistant Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht). While Bobby was once a well know author and sought after professor but now he is a shell of a man reduced by lethargy and alcohol to a disheveled creature in a tattered bathrobe. Bobby and Lawson sit around the house in haze of tobacco smoke and booze quoting lines from the literary giants of the twentieth century, devoid of any direction, any sense of purpose. When Pursy arrives on the scene she introduces an immediate animosity with Long and sparks something long suppressed in Lawson. The three begin to morph into a dysfunctional family of sorts, one that forces the three to slowly begin to change.
Predictably, Long and Pursy soften to each other, both are headstrong to the extreme but move closer to the center as time goes on. One reason is the influence of Lawson. He is attracted to Pursy but still looks with admiration at the once great professor that was once his mentor and remains his friend. For a long time Lawson did not have to think for himself, his direction, or what there was of it, was determined by Long. Pursy forces a change on the men and in turn is pushed to a new course for her own life.
It is easy to misunderstand this film. Like a gothic southern novel you have to be able to reset your own pace to accommodate the laid back flow of the script. In typical New Orleans style the verbal flourishes and abounding adjectives create a unique texture to the story. There is no rush here to discover the secrets each character hides; they simmer, eventually coming to the surface. The characters sit, smoke, drink and argue, using words as weapons. Even the costumes reflect the people they cover. One scene in particular demonstrated this. Long’s dilapidated robe, once a fine garment is now as torn and stained as its owner. Pursy in her short skirt and long sleeved top, revealing some of her to the world while covering up other aspects. Lawson tries to dress normally but leaves buttons and necktie undone; Lawson comes across as a man not yet finished developing. Long and Pursy are both so strong willed and set in their ways that only a person like Lawson who is so unsure of his own life could possibly mediate between them, his need to please both forms the bridge to bring them together.
Although other actors grace the screen here this is basically a three actor play. Many think that John Trivolta is constantly making comeback movies. This is not really true, he dares to make films that are less in the way of box office draw than others in order to continue to develop as an actor. While he is mostly known for vibrate younger characters here Trivolta is willing to take an age appropriate role that does little to show off the handsome features that made him famous. His hair is a shocking white; his completion looks like it has not seen sunlight in a long time. Trivolta is willing to become this unkempt character for the sake of his craft. Scarlett Johansson is a refreshing change from the plethora of young starlets on the scene today. Sure, she has taken on roles in the typical teen party flicks but her real talent lies much deeper than her considerable physical beauty. With roles like Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring to her credit she will be around as a force in Hollywood long after other actresses her age are on "Where are they now". Johansson can more than hold her own with veteran actors such as Trivolta and brings to the table abilities far beyond her young years. She is able to balance the view of Pursy with a toughness and vulnerability that few could have pulled off so well. Gabriel Macht is well cast as Lawson, he is not as familiar to the audience as many actors his age and that works for him here. He plays the counterpoint between two forces of nature, mitigating the emotions that proliferate from the conflict.
This was the freshman effort for screenplay writer and director Shainee Gabel. She did credit to the original story by Ronald Everett Capps capturing the sense of style of this work. To her credit, the Southern style is difficult to manage especially when you are trying to bring a story to the fast moving audience prevalent today. A story set in this world is strange to many and may alienate part of the audience. If you are willing to pay attention and get into the slow pace you will enjoy this work far more. Gabel unfolds the story with leisure but needs some work at maintaining focus. The use of a narrative tends to disrupt the flow and should have been used with a bit more reservation. The sets are fantastic; they provide a texture to the drama that draws the audience in to these broken lives. Gabel provides a story of life rising out of the death of Lorraine, how even after Lorraine is dead she still affected the lives of these three by forcing them together.
Sony did credit to this underestimated film. Although the theatrical release was overshadowed by other movies it deserves a DVD that presents this work with care. The anamorphic video is excellent. The sweltering atmosphere comes across extremely well. The color palette is balanced with true to life tones and a rich feel. The Dolby 5.1 audio provides a sound stage that fills the room with ambience and better than average separation of the tracks. Among the extras is a technical commentary track by Gabel and cinematographer Elliot Davis. There are some deleted scenes that where best left out of the final cut and typical behind the scenes featurette. If you are willing to take a chance on a slower paced drama featuring some dark human emotions that this film will give you an entertaining evening.