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Refined former literature professor or rednecky old coot—is it really that tough a choice? Apparently it is for John Travolta, who plays the title character in A Love Song for Bobby Long as someone whose outsized Southern lilt is put to use both quoting the great authors and delivering an extended monologue on his boyhood quest for “puh-say.”
Travolta’s white-haired Bobby, all ratty T-shirts and decrepitude, is just one of the false notes in Bobby Long. Scarlett Johansson is another. She may be the most likable presence in this hackneyed story of family, redemption, and whatnot, but she’s never quite convincing as Pursy, an 18-year-old who, estranged from her momma and never having known her daddy, has ended up living in a Florida trailer with a guy who tries to comfort her with “Why don’t you just make us some dinner, and I’ll go rent us a porno!” Writer-director Shainee Gabel, making her feature-film debut, doesn’t even try to dirty up the typically lovely Johansson, instead outfitting Pursy in pristine tank tops and denim and keeping her skin healthily glowing despite the character’s hard living and diet of peanut butter, M&Ms, and potato chips.
Trailer-trash princess and loutish lit lover meet when Pursy’s singer-songwriter mother, Lorraine, dies unexpectedly. Pursy travels to New Orleans to claim the house that Lorraine said would be hers, but when she gets there she finds it already occupied by Bobby and a younger but equally disheveled roommate, Lawson (Gabriel Macht). Bobby and Lawson, who shared the filthy, plastic-lounge-chair-and-liquor-bottle-furnished place with Lorraine, tell Pursy that she left the property to all three of them.
Naturally, Pursy moves in anyway, with the hope of eventually forcing her roommates to leave. But as time goes on, she discovers that Bobby has a Secret. And that both Bobby and Lawson are keeping another Secret. And that Lorraine was keeping a Secret from all of them. One of these surprises is guessable, one’s obvious, and the third is a completely convoluted explanation of why Lawson, a good-looking and educated guy, is drinking his life away with Bobby, his dissipated former mentor.
Based on Ronald Everett Capps’ novel Off Magazine Street, Bobby Long is full of humid Southern atmosphere—y’know, bright, broken-down houses surrounded by prickly thickets and neighborhood gatherings full of men singing folk songs with their shirts off. Purple narration, voiced by Lawson from the book he’s writing about Bobby’s life, lays it on even thicker, with unnecessary descriptions such as “Autumn comes slowly in New Orleans” and, later, “Winter never really feels truly at home in New Orleans.” Gabel’s dialogue veers from syrupy (“She was hard to understand, but she kept the door to her heart open”) to childishly antagonistic (Pursy amends Bobby’s description of his liquid “breakfast of champions” to “champion of fuckups, maybe!”). None of it sounds terribly realistic.
Appropriately, the movie’s pace is as slow as a summer afternoon, with the pile-on of drama saved for the very end. But the most unforgivable of Gabel’s sins is Bobby himself. The character is ostensibly a broken academic, but he just seems schizophrenic: Spouting Molière, Thomas Jefferson, and George Sand all the while, Bobby is alternately gruff, wacky, soulful, and cheesy. He strikes up a conversation with a couple of kids on the bus like a mental patient, asking, “Are you having sexual intercourse with each other? Sex is nice!” and later asks Lawson, “Think we’ll still be living together in heaven?” Most incongruous of all is his big my-girl-gone-done-me-proud speech, which is more gee-whiz than great-books, hardly the eloquent finale Gabel intended.
Like that bit of dialogue, A Love Song for Bobby Long simply meanders along, wrong note after wrong note, toward a melodramatic but welcome conclusion. After two hours of trying to figure out what kind of person its main character is supposed to be, you may find that Lawson’s voice-over says it best: “Time was never a friend to Bobby Long.”
The characters in Brother to Brother also quote literature, but in this case, the experience feels truly academic. “There are thoughts that have the power to trap me,” the lead character drones in the opening scene, and for the next 90 minutes, you’ll be trapped, too—in the kind of world where it’s perfectly normal for two kids, fresh from a heated class debate on race and homophobia, to recite poems to each other on a stoop, only to be interrupted by a passing elderly gentleman who then awes them with a few verses of his own.
At this point, you’re already hoping for someone to come along and call bullshit on these poseurs, but throughout Brother to Brother you can almost hear writer-director Rodney Evans nagging, “This stuff is serious, people!” And the many, many topics that Evans’ sprawling debut tries to be about—most significantly, the unjust double bind of being a black homosexual—surely are. Problem is, Evans attacks them with all the earnestness of a college student who’s just discovered poetry slams and raging against the Man. It doesn’t help that his cast generally sinks to the level of the material: Most of the inhabitants of this insulated universe wear only two expressions: man-I’m-angry and wow-that’s-deep—though in the case of Roger Robinson’s Bruce, the elder poet, at times you also get the blanker God-I’m-old.
The angry young man at the center of it all is Perry (Anthony Mackie), a New York student and artist who likes to defend his gayness before anyone even gives him shit about it. Perry’s been disowned by his father, who caught him in bed with another boy. He spends his time painting, listening to the rhymes of his friend Marcus (Larry Gilliard Jr.), and fooling around with Jim (Alex Burns), a white classmate who fuels Perry’s ire when he comments that he loves “sweet black ass.” In school, where these kids apparently take only one class, Perry starts getting rather vocal in an ongoing discussion about civil-rights leaders, yelling at no one about how openly gay author James Baldwin was discriminated against by his own people—which kicks off a leave-your-sexuality-at-home backlash from the other students.
Jim remarks afterward that it’s weird that Perry got so aggressive, given that he’s never spoken in class before, to which Perry responds, “It’s probably because I feel like if I open my mouth, I’ll just start screaming!” You’ll understand how he feels, especially once the sage Negro poet turns up again. Perry not only happens to find the lines that Bruce recited in a library book one day, he also confirms that he’s gay Harlem Renaissance writer Richard Bruce Nugent. As the two become buds, the film jumps to black-and-white flashbacks of Bruce’s heyday, when his friendships with the likes of Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford), Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), and Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis) resulted in the formation of the Algonquin Round Table– esque Niggeratti Manor and the publication of the groundbreaking literary magazine Fire!!
Though the episodes from the past make Brother to Brother feel even more unwieldy, they’re ultimately the most compelling parts of the film, filled with a liveliness and passion that deflate whenever Perry returns to the screen. Of course, Perry’s friendship with Bruce eventually renews them both, culminating in an oh-please development that officially brands the film as cheese. By then, you’ll wish everyone involved had just listened to Langston Hughes: “When we started this,” he says in one flashback, “we wanted to say something important. What happened to that?”CP