It’s great to see John Travolta thoroughly engaged in a role again after five years of paycheck whoring in interchangeable crap such as Basic and Swordfish. As Bobby Long, a disgraced literature professor from Alabama hiding from the world and his family in a ramshackle house on the fringes of New Orleans, Travolta finds easy charm and haunted grace in this scruffy, white-haired, big-gutted boozehound. He’s an elegant mess. So is the movie. First-time director Shainee Gabel wants to catch the “invisible lives” that the film’s literary touchstone, Carson McCullers, did so purely in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
It’s no go. Cliches keep banging into one another as Bobby and Lawson (Gabriel Macht), his former teaching assistant, are faced with eviction from their home and their private alcoholic haze. Their benefactor, a singer named Lorraine, has died and left the house to her estranged daughter, Pursy (Scarlett Johansson), Florida trailer trash who has blown in to claim what’s hers. As the three form a dysfunctional family — Pursy has a yen for Lawson — secrets are revealed that are way too easy to see coming.
The actors labor to perform a rescue operation. Macht has a subtle way of revealing emotional bruises. And Johansson — nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actress for this role — is a twenty-year-old of vivid talent. What doesn’t help is that she and Macht are both too gym-toned and poised for their loser characters. It’s the stunning location photography of camera ace Elliot Davis that provides what the movie itself lacks: authenticity.