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MOVIE REVIEW

Quirky 'Bobby Long' looks old before its time

''A Love Song for Bobby Long" works hard to give quirk a bad name. A chicken-fried character drama set in that Deep South known to readers of books with titles like ''Fried Green Tomatoes of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," it has been intoxicatingly filmed by cinematographer Elliot Davis and features a trio of performances so varied as to induce audience whiplash.

In one corner is John Travolta as the title character, a boozy roue of an older gentleman who has squatted so long in the New Orleans house of honky-tonk singer Lorraine Will that he feels he owns the place. We never see Lorraine, since she has upped and died just prior to the opening credits; apparently, she was a local legend with a string of men and a raging drug habit in her past.

While allowing Bobby to live at her house along with Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), a young writer with a nebulous attachment to the older man -- are they a couple or just fellow alcoholics? -- Lorraine has kept her just-grown daughter, Purslane Hominy Will (Scarlett Johansson), at arm's length in Panama City, Fla. Mother's death brings daughter home and into an awkward living arrangement with the two men. Garrulous life lessons ensue.

Bobby is a disgraced former professor of English literature whose every utterance is precisely and drunkenly phrased, and after the requisite snarling at Purslane, he and Lawson embark on a mission to get the girl her GED and launch her into the world. But there are dark secrets in their closets, as Lawson's tedious voice-over narration never ceases to remind us, and things even the characters don't yet know about each other.

''Bobby Long" has been directed by a first-timer named Shainee Gabel (she co-directed a 1997 documentary called ''Anthem"), and the film often feels as though it's leaning on the contribution of its ancillary craftsmen. Davis's camerawork is piercingly pretty, with blue, blue skies and the vivid colors of a coffee-table photo book, while the art decoration has funk and intelligence. The blues and roots-rock songs on the soundtrack give the movie a meaty backbone while often calling too much attention to themselves, but, in their defense, there's not a whole lot going on in the foreground.

Other than Travolta hamming up a storm. His character is supposed to be an older man, if not an old man, but the actor looks as if he's been given a silver dye job and called it a day. The movie never recovers from the dissonance; it could be double-billed with ''Beyond the Sea" (in which only Kevin Spacey must believe he can be taken for a 20-something Bobby Darin) as a touring exhibition on the vanity of movie stars.

Still, Travolta delivers some pleasurably juicy overacting, singing ''Barbara Allen" with Bobby's boozehound friends, boasting ''I am a professor, a troubadour, a poet!" in a drawl you could spread on a side of baby-backs, and eventually showing signs of the dread Movie Wasting Disease.

Johansson, meanwhile, is at that charmed stage in her career where she's unable to make a false move. How long this can last is anyone's guess, but for now she gives Purslane (oy gevalt, that name) a smart-mouthed intelligence that visibly blooms under Bobby's care and that lends the movie an emotional kick otherwise lacking. She's also casually beautiful enough to either stop Macht's Lawson in his tracks or to expose the actor's limitations -- it's never exactly clear which.

The best part about ''Bobby Long" is the way it unfolds in New Orleans time, with plenty of space for sunsets, cicadas in the tall grass, drinking whiskey out of pickle jars, and simultaneously living life and avoiding it. The worst parts are the melodramatic revelations that clutter the last half-hour and insist on piling heavy meaning onto the movie's rickety timbers. Bobby at one point quotes Robert Frost: ''Happiness makes up in length what it doesn't have in width," but that's hardly the problem. If ''Bobby Long" is pleasantly wide, it's too long by half.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

A Love Song for Bobby Long
*1/2

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