Judge Joel Pearce thinks that rhyming titles are cool.
"New Orleans is a siren of a city. A fable, an illusion…the place Lorraine had to escape from and Bobby and I had to escape to." -Lawson
As pure a novel adaptation as I have seen, A Love Song for Bobby Long is a story told in words and phrases borrowed from many sources. At times, its beauty, patience, and simplicity are enough to disguise the reality that this tale is more copied than created.
Facts of the Case
Purcy Will (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost World) is a high school dropout who moves to New Orleans after she learns that her mother, Lorraine, has died. Purcy arrives to learn that her mother has left her house to her daughter as well as two men. One is Bobby Long (John Travolta, Ladder 49), an alcoholic ex-professor with demons in his past and a big chip on his shoulder. The other is Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht, The Recruit), a young alcoholic author who is trying to write a book about Bobby Long. All three of them are too stubborn to leave, and it slowly becomes clear that Lorraine brought them together for a reason.
Adapting a novel to film is a tricky affair. Most of the best novels (and many of the rest) are more about reading, writing, and language than they are about the story they tell. Such books are crammed with lessons about the life of the author, the painful process of giving birth to a work of fiction, and the wonder of finding passages in books that leap directly from the page to a reader's heart. Such passages work well in novels because the reader becomes immersed in that experience, and those magical words from other authors can be captured perfectly and seamlessly in the text of your own work.
This literary magic is a lot harder to capture on film. Film has its own language, and that magic most often comes through images and angles borrowed from the work of masters. Every now and then, a movie like Wonder Boys comes along that captures something of the literary experience. Films like that are rare, though, and A Love Song for Bobby Long is one of the many films that ultimately fail to capture that magic. The characters endlessly quote famous authors, but in a film about life and personal growth, it's important for characters to eventually learn to speak in their own voices, which never happens. Perhaps there's a message here about literature professors and authors who have only ever learned about life through the printed word, but all of these characters have been through enough in their lives that they could easily speak for themselves.
And it's certainly a story we have seen before. A wayward youngster in need of direction and strength is paired with broken older characters in need of hope and redemption. This is even spelled out, when Lawson talks about his own penance and Bobby's redemption. Most of the actors work hard to keep things feeling fresh, and are successful for the most part. As in most of her films, it is Scarlett Johansson who really shines, making Percy appear both older and younger than she is. Every one of her expressions and responses is significant, and all of her moments on screen are significant in building her character. Gabriel Macht puts in a great performance as well, reminding me of Peter Krause's role in Six Feet Under. He makes Lawson a sensitive man, one that feels obligated to stay with Bobby Long even though he doesn't really deserve it. Among lesser actors, this would have been a fine role for John Travolta as well. This is the oldest and grimiest he has ever looked, and the character Bobby Long is meant to be overdramatic, which means that his ham-handed approach is more suitable than usual. He didn't always have me convinced, though, and I sometimes wondered what he was doing in this film. Still, this is the best performance he has delivered in a long time, and it grew on me by the end.
Sharing equal stage with the characters is A Love Song for Bobby Long's interpretation of New Orleans. New Orleans is portrayed through vivid colors and sounds, as though the landscape itself was working to bring life and happiness back into the lives of its characters. The pacing is steady but slow, with slow blues and soul music matching the gentle pans and steady shots in the cinematography. The narration returns regularly to the idea of New Orleans as a place—a place both to get lost in and to find yourself in again. Sony's DVD transfer captures these sights and sounds well, doing justice to the vibrant palette of the film. There is a hint of edge enhancement in some scenes, but there are few other transfer problems and no visible print flaws. The sound transfer is serviceable, with the rich soundtrack mixed subtly into the rear channels. Almost all of the action is across the front sound stage, though, and some more depth would have been appreciated.
The first special feature, a commentary track with writer/director Shainee Gabel and cinematographer Elliot Davis, tends to be dry. The pair is passionate about A Love Song for Bobby Long, which keeps things moving along. A production featurette with crew and cast in interviews contains some self-congratulatory fluff, but it seems sincere. It explores the decisions and challenges of making this kind of film on a small budget. The disc is rounded out with some deleted and extended scenes, most of which are just snippets of dialogue and shots excised with good reason. Several are more interesting though, and fans of the film will want to consider how these sequences would have changed the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There's a revelation at the end of A Love Song for Bobby Long that won't come as much of a surprise to most viewers. Like the rest of the film, the ending is completely generic. If only they could have found a different way to solve the problems in the script. This solution seems too simple, too all encompassing for characters this complex. Johansson almost makes it feel natural, but it doesn't quite work. Perhaps Shainee Gabel is too in love with New Orleans, the images she has evoked, and the tone of the film to realize that this story could be told anywhere.
A Love Song for Bobby Long has a lot to admire. I love the choice to never show Lorraine, even in a photograph. She is always present in the film without being flaunted, which shows a level of restraint that's rare from a first time filmmaker. Still, it could have been so much more had it began with a more original script, and if the characters had been given their own voices. The resulting film is well worth a rental for the great performances and solid moments, but it's not destined to become a perennial favorite.
Shainee Gabel, since she is a first time filmmaker, only gets a $5 fine for not delivering anything new. Everyone else is free to go.
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