Cinema Signal:

Silent Screams:
The Search for a Missing Father, Home, and Identity

. "A Love Song for Bobby Long"

In a year-end blitz of small films about dysfunctional, broken families (e.g., "Around the Bend") comes this variation on the theme set in a tacky section of New Orleans. While a confident cast ultimately makes something of the drama, a certain awkwardness in the storytelling sets up dischordant side tracks as it attempts to live up to its title.

Beautiful Purslane ("Pursy") Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) has lived most of her 18-year life without the mother from whom she's estranged but whose memory she cherishes. As a teenage independent she's become hardened and jaded beyond her years. When her live-in boyfriend tells her that he received word of Lorraine's death several days after the fact, she rages at the dumbshit for neglecting to let her know right away. She storms out of the house with all her possessions and buses her way from Florida back to the town she grew up in and to her childhood home, a day too late to make the funeral.

Finding the house run down and uncared for, she discovers two men nesting in it like a pair of disreputable squatters. Handsome Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) welcomes her and wakes Bobby Long (John Travolta) out of a stupor to greet her. Understanding immediately who she is and why she's there, Long justifies his and Lawson's presence in the house by declaring that Lorraine left the house to the three of them, a partial lie but a working hypothesis.

Pursy (whose name is derived from a wild flower of the region) takes her mother's bedroom and sets about to find a job and some stability, working out her living arrangement as best she can with the unwanted undesirables under her roof. While the "dirty-old-men" threat slowly vanishes and we come to realize that her virtue is not about to be compromised, she learns that these men were a big part of her mother's life.

Lorraine's circle of friends and admirers form a tight knit community faithful to her memory and warm in embracing the newcomer who reminds everyone of her. Leading the pack is Long himself, turning out to be the central magnet of the group and a former literature professor who spouts Robert Frost at will and sings folk songs. Lawson is his protege, engaged for years in fitfully writing Long's biography.

The forced living conditions in the house slowly evolve into understanding, toleration and mutual respect as years of secrets and half-truths get stripped away, allowing for love and trust to emerge among the misfits until what's hidden is revealed and discoveries alter the bonds.

The pleasure of the movie is in its intentions to evoke nostalgic lyricism in a tone poem of lost opportunities and resilient human emotion. The debut writing (adapted from the novel, "Off Magazine Street" by Ronald Everett Capps) and the direction of Shainee Gabel tends to wander in search of enriching details, forcing us to disregard a steady series of failed moments. Hers is not a steady hand. Worst of all, the folk-loric dimensions of Bobby Long, along with the homey depth his character should have, simply fail to materialize. The character's penchant to quote poetry doesn't quite do the job.

The part of Bobby Long should have gone to someone with a genuine background in folk music and/or musicianship in general (a less boxoffice-friendly Kris Kristofferson comes to mind). To anyone who knows musicians, Travolta's sporting around a guitar without strumming to back up his poetic offerings and ruminative moments is a patently false note. A true musician doesn't use his instrument as a silent prop. Put a guitar in a real guitarist's hands and it becomes part of his voice.

Travolta is a study in sanctimonious ego requiring a last act redemption to turn him into a good guy, a difficult sell by that late stage in the game. Getting the name value and charismatic presence from him wasn't worth having to write around his inabilities as a homespun balladeer. While the title gives a sense of what was trying to be conveyed, only a full fledged musical poet could have brought us there. Travolta does play pathetic and dissolute well, however.

Johansson stands out for the grip she holds on your concern for her well being. Her portrayal of a contemporary, feisty personality is a welcome contrast to her framed idealization in "Girl with a Pearl Earring." She offers a gentle, straight-ahead naturalism with ample backbone that compels pleasure in her company. For all its limitations, this is a good vehicle for her appeal and talents, again justifying the promise she showed as a 14-year old charmer in "The Horse Whisperer." The camera, and I, continue to adore her.

Even while fearing for what his character's intentions might be toward his vulnerable housemate, you sense in Gabriel Macht's ("American Outlaws") demeanor an underlying store of good character which causes you to root for his rehabilitation and positive contribution to the household. Beautiful Canadian Deborah Kara Unger is admirable as the restrained Georgianna, whose personality forces her to handle jealousy with internal, unboisterous understanding. This is an actress who has remarkable command of accents, which she proves here with her Southern and in "Stander" with her South African.

Naturalistic source lighting by cinematographer Elliot Davis is creatively atmospheric, adding, along with Sharon Lomofsky's production design, to the Steinbeckian flavor.

For the most part, this might be a story with greatest appeal to those who like their conflicts and issues soft, quiet and unexplosive. The allure to the art house crowd is in the film's study of the haunted past and in the universal theme of restitching a shredded family.

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                                     ~~  Jules Brenner  

Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Well written, perceptive
I've seen the movie and agree with the review
Site rating: 8

Being from New Orleans and middle aged, I understand how the reviews from places like Hollywood would be negative. It just did not cost $100 million to make the film. The film was based on tragedy, and in my opinion, a complete and captivating story. Just visiting New Orleans is not enough. One has to live there in order to know it and feel it's vibes. There really is a church and a bar room on most every block.

                                                           ~~ Richard W.

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