Okay, I admit it: I had a big ol’ lump in my throat by the end of the A Love Song for Bobby Long. In the hands of lesser talents, this would have been a CBS Sunday Night Movie, unendurably sappy-sweet and starring refugees from sitcoms trying to “get serious.” But writer/director Shainee Gabel (adapting Ronald Everett Capps’s novel Off East Magazine Street) has instead given us the perfect little Christmas gift we didn’t know we wanted, genuinely poignant and full of a celebratory spirit of family.
And even better, it’s the kind of family spirit that will be instantly recognizable to more and more people today, at a time when fewer and fewer of us live in a mom-dad-and-2.5-kids situation: Family is what you make it; family is the people you love whom you want gathered around you not only during the major moments (holidays, weddings) but all the time, and neither blood ties nor legal bindings or even sexual relationships have any bearing on that feeling of connection. Whoever said “We don’t pick our families” was wrong. We do — some of us, anyway — and it doesn’t make the sense of “family” any less real.
The coming together of an impromptu but ultimately committed family is what Bobby Long is all about. The man himself, Bobby Long, is “a dramatic old bastard,” a former university literature professor turned professional sot — the drama is just a natural result of his being from New Orleans, and reveling in it. His comfortable decline into inevitable kidney failure or alcoholic coma is interrupted by the arrival of young Pursy Will at his ramshackle house in the most rundown and remote neighborhood in the city. Turns out Pursy’s mom, Bobby’s former roommate/landlady, left the house to her teenage daughter (that would be Purse), who has traveled from the trailer parks of Florida to stake her claim. Alas, her mother’s will appears to have left half the house to Bobby and his hanger-on, would-be novelist/expert moper Lawson Pines, a former student from Bobby’s better days.
The basic plotline from there is easily deducible: personality clashes invariably mellow into grudging affection, which invariably mellows into real love of the let’s-be-a-family kind. It’s the little triangle of the cast that makes it so enjoyable… and makes it feel less inevitable that it is. John Travolta (Ladder 49, The Punisher), as Bobby, makes you feel like we’ve rewound to that amazing comeback of his in Pulp Fiction, with all the promise it entailed… and makes you forget that he’s done mostly a lot of crap since then. His Bobby is a crank whom it’s really hard to like, at first, which makes his winning us over all the greater a triumph by the end. Gabriel Macht (The Recruit, Bad Company), as Lawson, here gets his first real chance to prove that he’s more than just a handsome face, making Lawson a lot more weary than a young man should be, and helping us accept the secret of why he is this way even if it is a bit, um, melodramatic.
But it’s Scarlett Johansson (The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, Lost in Translation), as Pursy, who steals the show, as she always does. We really should all fall to our feet in abject worship of her, of the intelligence and maturity she brings to every role she takes — even when that means, as it does here, that she’s imbuing a half-grown child with a luminous, hopeful quality that lets us see the woman the character is to become, although the character may not see it herself yet.
About a boy
It’s a similar situation, in many ways, in which Johansson’s Alex Foreman finds herself in In Good Company: a complicated triangle with her father, Dan, and her father’s much younger new boss, Carter Duryea, with whom she falls into an uneasy relationship. But I guess that’s to be expected if Johansson will insist upon avoiding roles in the typical teen claptrap, which, we can hope, her foray into early 2004’s The Perfect Score will have convinced her is a good idea.
As a movie, though, Company shares only surface attributes with Bobby: both are terrific ensemble dramedies, but Company has as much fun satirizing the current mess that is the corporate environment as it does twisting up its characters in emotional disasters… from which they’ll emerge, of course, stronger and better and nicer people. Even Carter Duryea, who’s rather an arrogant slimeball of a corporate solider, or, as Carter describes himself: “an emotionally guarded anal-retentive asshole.” Yet, as played by the delightful Topher Grace (p.s., Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!), you can’t help but like him, in spite of himself — you actually care that he gets saved from himself in the end, because it makes it easier to like him, but also because Grace lets you see that he’s really a decent guy who’s merely taken some unfortunate roads. And it lets Dennis Quaid’s (Flight of the Phoenix, The Day After Tomorrow) Dan open up and genuinely come to like the guy, too, and who doesn’t want to be able to cheer for Dennis Quaid like that?
Writer/director Paul Weitz repeats the surprising success of his About a Boy, finding new humor and drama in a realm — here, the career crisis — that seemed well covered. And he freshens it up so that it couldn’t be more current, exploring the awkwardness of the new generation gap between Gen-Xers climbing the corporate ladder as fast as their sharkiness will take them and their elder Boomers getting pushed out of the way by corporations that have no use for their experience and loyalty, not at their decades-inflated salaries. Witty and warm and wise in all the ways it can be, this is a lovely film.
A Love Song for Bobby Long
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for pervasive language and strong sexuality
official site | IMDB
In Good Company
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers
rated PG-13 for some sexual content and drug references
official site | IMDB