New Orleans is a siren of a city,” the literary-minded title character explains in A Love Song for Bobby Long, a poky dawdle of a Southern-style indie that would pass without notice but for John Travolta and Scarlett Johansson, who answered the siren call of regional color: Actors do love their colorful Southerners, don’t they? The accents, the sexy sheen of sweat on skin, the permitted enjoyment of booze and cigarettes… Wait, you mean not all Southerners drawl and smoke and swig and sing at outdoor gatherings of neighborly black and white folks as the sun drops ripe and low on the bayou?
Well, the folks in filmmaker Shainee Gabel’s feature debut sho’ nuf do, every danged one of them. (The script is based on a novel by Ronald Everett Capps.) Going his Primary Colors palette one better, Travolta bleaches his hair to silver and maintains a thoughtfully dissolute beard stubble as Bobby Long, a broke-down, alcoholic, cut-rate bard who used to be a university literature professor before Very Sad Things happened to (and because of) him. Now Bobby lives in atmospheric squalor on a Big Easy backstreet, sharing liquor and spotty housekeeping habits with Lawson Pines (Grand Theft Parsons‘ Gabriel Macht), his former student and teaching assistant.
The banged-up good ol’ boys are bound together by a love of hooch and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, a reverence for The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, a belief in Lawson’s promise as a great writer (his magnum opus is about Bobby), and a devotion to the memory of a freewheeling gal named Lorraine Will, recently dead and buried. Then Lorraine’s estranged 18-year-old daughter, Pursy (Johansson), arrives to claim what’s hers. The young woman’s botanically fetching given name is Purslane Hominy Will; her daddy is long-lost. (Purslane, we learn helpfully, is a weed — ”an axillary bloom that closes up when the sun goes down.”)
Closed-up Pursy thinks she is inheriting Lorraine’s house; Bobby and Lawson, who already live there, think the dearly departed (loved by every fella in town) meant for them all to share nicely — because, as described with Hallmark sincerity, Lorraine ”was hard to understand, but she kept the door to her heart open.” Pursy, a vision of Johanssonian beauty in the tank-top wardrobe that flatters many an actress in such a Southern saga, sulks, but she also explores the town with grave interest and unflustered intelligence — the arresting actress’ welcome contribution to an otherwise unmemorable party. It’s instantly obvious in this clichéd drama that Pursy’s loveliness will redeem Bobby and Lawson. Sho’ nuf, secrets are brought out into daylight, and the neighbors gather once more in integrated harmony to celebrate. Travolta even dances.