A Love Song for Bobby Long (2004)

Directed by Shainee Gabel

Whenever I enjoy a movie, particularly when I enjoy it as much as I did A Love Song for Bobby Long, I have to ask myself, “Why?”

Movies inevitably elicit a gut response because, for me at least, they are visceral affairs, not intellectual (like any good story).

Afterwards, I usually kick my brain into gear and try to bring some critical thought to it (as I’m feebly trying to do here). But I like or dislike a movie based on my gut.

So, why did I respond the way I did to Bobby Long?

To begin with, I think I’m hardwired to like this kind of movie. It’s essentially a romance (as suggested by the title), though not of the Gone With the Wind variety, not the boy-meets-girl kind.

It’s a romance in that it has a story arc from despair to hope, from isolation to unification. So it has the romantic progression that leads to a satisfying, up beat end.

But this doesn’t mean it is treacly (as happy endings are assumed to always be). There is enough grit in the movie and tempering in the end to avoid the crime of sappiness.

Learning that her estranged mother has died, Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) leaves Florida (and a dead beat boyfriend) to go to New Orleans and her inheritance, her childhood home. There she finds two drunks living in her mother’s old house, Bobby Long (John Travolta) and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht).

They are old friends of her mother as, it seems, is everyone she meets. (“You look just like her, darlin’,” everyone tells her.) The two men have a codependent relationship of a particularly destructive kind, and Purslane has a kind of chip on her shoulder, a combination of her youth and a childhood she sees as characterized by abandonment.

Purslane and Bobby have a prickly relationship – he wants her out of the house and she has no intention to leave. Lawson is a kind of ineffectual observer to it all. The movie is basically about these three – who they are and how they’re relationships evolve.

What is interesting about A Love Song for Bobby Long is that it is a story that is all backstory. In fact, the backstory is the story. Through the interactions of the characters it is slowly revealed and we get to both know and understand the characters and, the more we do, the more compelling it all becomes. It’s a mystery, in this sense. It’s all about discovering the truth.

Performance is tremendously important in this movie and from the three lead actors, we get great ones. It’s the best role I’ve seen John Travolta in for a long time. But the real jewel here is Scarlett Johansson. She manages to balance youthful abrasiveness, uncertainty, vulnerability, strength and sexuality. It’s very impressive and works wonderfully.

You know a movie is working when you forget you are watching a movie.

I’ve seen reviews that felt the portrayal of the drunks was not all that realistic, it should be more horrific and frightening. But I think that would have been a mistake. The story is not about alcoholism. The drunkenness is just a means for showing lives that have been broken. It’s a story of discovery and redemption and, at its core, it’s really more fable than anything else. And yes, it’s romanticized but that’s partly the point.

I also liked the look of this movie. There are a number of shots in particular where the framing and colours are wonderful. I specifically liked the walking shots and a wide shot later in the movie of a bridge stretching across the frame at the bottom, dwarfed by a sky of bulging clouds.

Ultimately, though, this movie works because it gives us three very interesting people with very interesting stories that move to a place where they come together and the truth of their lives is revealed. Some have said the film is short on plot but I would argue that the people are the plot.

Whatever the case, while there may be niggling aspects the head takes issue with, the gut doesn’t care. It likes this movie. Highly recommended.

(Originally published in 2005.)

2 Responses

  1. Ron says:

    Haven’t seen this one. Sounds like a good rental.

    “Treacly”. New word for me — had to look it up!

  2. Darren says:

    You are right, this movie is a joy to watch. One of my favorites, I love it each and every time. The acting, the music, the cinematography are all excellent and the director seems like they really knew what they were doing on this one.

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