In a year-end blitz of small films about dysfunctional, broken families (e.g., Around the Bend) comes this variation on the theme set in a tacky section of New Orleans. While a confident cast ultimately makes something of the drama, a certain awkwardness in the storytelling sets up discordant side tracks as it attempts to live up to its title.
Purslane "Pursy" Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson) has lived most of her 18-year life without the mother from whom she's estranged but whose memory she cherishes. As a teenage independent she's become hardened and jaded beyond her years. When her live-in boyfriend tells her that he received word of Lorraine's death several days after the fact, she rages at the dumbshit for neglecting to let her know right away. She storms out of the house with all her possessions and buses her way from Florida back to the town she grew up in and to her childhood home, a day too late to make the funeral.
Finding the house run down and uncared for, she discovers two men nesting in it like a pair of disreputable squatters. Handsome Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht) welcomes her and wakes Bobby Long (John Travolta) out of a stupor to greet her. Understanding immediately who she is and why she's there, Long justifies his and Lawson's presence in the house by declaring that Lorraine left the house to the three of them, a partial lie but a working hypothesis.
Pursy (whose name is derived from a wild flower of the region) takes her mother's bedroom and sets about to find a job and some stability, working out her living arrangement as best she can with the unwanted undesirables under her roof. While the "dirty old men" threat slowly vanishes and we come to realize that her virtue is not about to be compromised, she learns that these men were a big part of her mother's life.
Lorraine's circle of friends and admirers form a tight knit community faithful to her memory and warm in embracing the newcomer who reminds everyone of her. Leading the pack is Long himself, turning out to be the central magnet of the group and a former literature professor who spouts Robert Frost at will and sings folk songs. Lawson is his protégé, engaged for years in fitfully writing Long's biography.
The forced living conditions in the house slowly evolve into understanding, toleration, and mutual respect as years of secrets and half-truths get stripped away, allowing for love and trust to emerge among the misfits until what's hidden is revealed and discoveries alter the bonds.
The pleasure of the movie is intended to evoke nostalgic lyricism in a tone poem of lost opportunities and resilient human emotion. The debut writing (adapted from the novel Off Magazine Street by Ronald Everett Capps) and direction of Shainee Gabel tends to wander in search of enriching details, forcing us to disregard a steady series of failed moments. Hers is not a steady hand. Worst of all, the folkloric dimensions of Bobby Long, along with the homey depth his character should have, simply fail to materialize. The character's penchant to quote poetry doesn't quite do the job.
The part of Bobby Long should have gone to someone with a genuine background in folk music and/or musicianship in general (a less box-office-friendly Kris Kristofferson comes to mind). To anyone who knows musicians, Travolta's carrying a guitar but not strumming it to back up his poetic offerings and ruminative moments is a patently false note. A true musician doesn't use his instrument as a silent prop. Put a guitar in a real guitarist's hands and it becomes part of his voice.
Travolta is a study in gross ego requiring a last act redemption to turn him into a good guy, a difficult sell by that late stage in the game. While the title gives you a sense of what he was trying to convey, only a full fledged musical poet could have brought us there. Travolta does play pathetic and dissolute well, however.
Johansson stands out for the grip she holds on your concern for her well being. Her portrayal of a contemporary, feisty personality is a welcome contrast to her framed idealization in Girl with a Pearl Earring. She offers a gentle, straight-ahead naturalism with ample backbone that compels pleasure in her company. For all its limitations, this is a good vehicle for her appeal and talents, again justifying the promise she showed as a 14-year old charmer in The Horse Whisperer. The camera, and I, continue to adore her.
Even while fearing for what his character's intentions might be toward his vulnerable housemate, you sense in Gabriel Macht's (American Outlaws) demeanor an underlying store of good character which causes you to root for his rehabilitation and positive contribution to the household. Beautiful Deborah Unger is admirable as the restrained Georgianna, whose personality forces her to handle jealousy with internal, unboisterous understanding.
Naturalistic source lighting by cinematographer Elliot Davis is creatively atmospheric, adding, along with Sharon Lomofsky's production design, to the Steinbeckian flavor.
For the most part, this might be a story with greatest appeal to those who like their conflicts and issues soft, quiet, and unexplosive. The allure to the art house crowd is in the film's study of the haunted past and in the universal theme of restitching a shredded family.
The DVD adds 10 minutes of additional scenes, commentary track, and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
Would you like to borrow my pajamas?