Drenched in the humidity of a New Orleans summer (that's a rough quote from the florid and unnecessary narration),the movie gives us an odd trio. Bobby Long (Travolta) is an old ex-literature professor. Lawson Pines (Macht) is his protégé and former teaching assistant who is now supposedly writing Bobby Long's biography. Purcy Will (Johansson) is an 18-year-old drifter whose mother dies, leaving her the shabby house that Long and Pines have been living in for years. I won't try to describe the situation when Purcy shows up and looks over the house and its occupants. I will let her line describe it: "Oh, sure, I want to live in this s***hole with two alcoholic strangers." And, let's face it, the interior of the place is a dark, dank garbage dump of books and Early Orange Crate furniture and one filthy bed, in which Bobby Long is sleeping off a drunk. The outside isn't much better. If it were larger it could have been one of those wrecked mansions now haunted, especially if the yard were cleared of those busted old recliners and rickety tables and decrepit barbecues.
The acting is fine. Travolta is pretty good as the down but not quite out patriarch, "the eldest man," as he puts it. He's a better, more engaging actor than I've been willing to give him credit for. Macht is adequate as a younger guy getting more and more fed up with being Travolta's toady. And Johansson is first rate. Her presence is appealing in a non-Hollywood way. She's not "cute" like Jessica Alba, nor beautiful like Jennifer Connolly. The way she looks, sounds, and acts is sui generis. Her voice has an occasional catch in it, a slight croak, and is anything but mellifluous. Her visual impression is off kilter too: a generous bosom, skinny legs, and a face that is difficult to pin down: the widest cheekbones adorning the modern screen, a broad forehead and narrow chin, plump and sensual lips, and surprisingly graceful eyes -- and she's a decent actress too. All three of the principals are up to professional standards and so are the minor players, each of them individuated by the script. (One guy has a constant cough, another neighbor is a florist, and so forth.) But if there's a weakness in the film, it's the plot. Southern writers have a way with words, if not ideas, and they are adept at catching exactly the right words in exchanges. Johansson dreams of becoming an X-Ray technician because "the bones look so good on the light boxes. Kinda like a portrait, only on the inside." That's not bad writing.
Sometimes, though, however dazzling and pellucid the dialog, the stories themselves tend to whine away like flywheels building up momentum but going nowhere. Beth Henley's stories have this same problem and Tennessee Williams ran into it once in a while too. The dramatic events in these sharply observed lives sometimes come to feel shoehorned in. There is often a Big Secret, hinted at but not revealed until the plot cries out for some kind of drama. (This movie has two secrets.) Somebody usually dies at the end because without such a momentous climax it might seem as if the camel had labored to bring forth a gnat.
There is a death at the end of this movie too, but although we can see it coming we are mercifully spared the suffering and sadness and the deathbed revelations.
The photography and location shooting are fine too. We only see a few minutes of the French Quarter and there is no Mardi Gras. The features of the city that we do see are small ones, carefully observed. Somebody is munching on a "poor boy" as submarine sandwiches are called in that neighborhood. The local bar, whose manager is a nice guy, has the go-to-hell name of Rock Bottom Cafe. And, man, those neighborhoods are seedy and broken down. I don't suppose they exist anymore, not after Katarina earlier this year. Can't decide whether it's good or bad. The neighborhoods looked poor but comfortable and, above all, tolerant.
Actually, despite whatever criticisms I may have made, I applaud this movie. It was made for adults. There is not a fist fight in it, nor a car chase or explosion. People lead pretty ordinary lives and their triumphs are tiny while their defeats may be grand ones. It's slow but it draws one in. The sentiment goes overboard once in a while, but I was moved when Travolta and Johansson embraced tearfully before the end.
A rewarding film. They should make more like it.