Wearing one shoe and one flip-flop, John Travolta staggers past New Orleans locations on the way from a bar to a funeral. "New Orleans is a siren of a city," we're assured, "a place of fables and illusion." And gin. The Southern-fried drama A Love Song for Bobby Long qualifies, barely, as a guilty pleasure, entertaining in spite of itself. When Scarlett Johansson tells John Travolta, "You are such a shameless ham," she's not acting, and Shainee Gabel's debut feature is equally shameless in making this a tourist trap for John Travolta fans. As Bobby Long, Travolta dances, twice, and strums and sings three songs.
Travolta's singing is croaky, though, because he's playing one of two alcoholics squatting in a squalid New Orleans house. Lorraine Will's house now belongs to her long-lost daughter, Johansson's Pursey. Pursey leaves her lousy life in Florida to discover she must share her inheritance with Travolta's gin-soaked ex-English-professor and Gabriel Macht's handsome writer-slash-drunk who can't quite finish his novel. The dissolute men and self-conscious young woman grate on each other's nerves, but—wouldn't you know it?—learn to love each other.
A Love Song for Bobby Long's saving graces are its hints of flavor and irrepressible belief in rehabilitation by faithful fellowship. The authentic Louisiana locations and songs written and performed by Grayson Capps provide a zesty milieu for the actors to inhabit (Capps, incidentally, is the son of Ronald Everett Capps, author of source novel Off Magazine Street). As for friends and family, the dead woman's named Lorraine Will for a reason: not that her inheritance is constantly at issue, but that her sheer force of personality transcends the grave in ways Bobby understands more than anyone.
If we never quite believe Travolta and Johansson are who they say they are, we enjoy their actors' gamesmanship all the same. Johansson's furrowed brow (as she reads her mother's tatty copies of Flannery O'Connor, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Plato) speaks to Pursey's concentration but also her grudging, petulant acknowledgement that reading is a worthwhile vocation. Travolta's wanton attitude—two parts regret, one part innate roguishness—fits him like a roomy, white summer suit. Macht's well-judged subtlety, then, makes his presence ever-welcome.
Macht's character tells Bobby that the plot's about "your redemption and my penance," and he's two-thirds right. It's also about Pursey learning to make something of her life and embrace the family she's never had. As such, A Love Song for Bobby Long follows a hugely predictable course. But even though Travolta's slumming—and his New Orleans accent—aren't very convincing, and the film is marred with pretention, there are worse ways for an audience to slum it than this production, with its generous scrapbook of literary wisdom and pleasantly overcooked performances.