Dir:Shainee Gabel. USA. 2004. 119mins.

Oldtrooper Travolta meets rising star Johansson in A Love Song For Bobby Long,a fragile but charming slice of New Orleans bohemiana. It was a nice idea togive the on-screen stand-off between their two characters (he a washed-up,alcoholic former university professor; she a stroppy school dropout with anabsent mother complex) a grounding in a master-and-apprentice duel ofthespians. A shame then that the energy built up in the sparky first half ofthe movie is gradually dispersed as the script slides towards melodrama andDixieland cliche.

Immediatelydubbed "Bobby Way Too Long" after its Venice festival press screening,the two-hour film would be flabby at 90 minutes. But this first-time featureouting for director Shainee Gabel has a shy grace to it that will woo thosewith time and indulgence to spare.

Generallywell-received by the home crowd in Venice, the film may turn out to be a strongperformer in continental Europe, where the myth of the visionary, literarydrunk is still taken seriously. In the States, the double-header talent and FriedGreen Tomatoes southern themes and setting will stir interest - especiallyif Travolta wins an Oscar nod.

Co-producedby Scarlett's mother, Melanie Johansson, the movie is the latest roll-out forEl Camino, the production company set up by the William Morris Agency tofinance low- to medium-budget vehicles for their clients - who includeTravolta, Johansson and Gabel.

Thetitle sequence introduces Bobby Long (Travolta) as he shambles towards thefuneral of his landlady and former lover Lorraine Will, cradling a bottle, theeffect of his linen suit rather spoiled by the fact that he is wearing onebrown shoe and one flip-flop.

Nextday, Lorraine's estranged daughter Purslane turns up - to discover that hermother's house has apparently been left not only to her but also to Bobby andhis partner in drink, Lawson (Gabriel Macht), who was lit professor Long's starstudent and university assistant, and is now, if only he could get it together,his biographer.

Thescene is set for a battle of wills, as bolshie Purslane (Johansson) moves inand tries to psyche the two wasters into leaving. At the same time, though, shefinds her anger at the world in general and her mother in particular beingsoftened by the tales and memories of the odd boho characters who lovedLorraine, and remember Purslane as a little girl.

It'sa fertile premise, and Purslane's gradual thawing out is kept from turning tomush by a nasty streak in Long. But the thaw still comes too soon. Once thestand-off is resolved, the film begins to drag: and a final lurch into BigEmotion, while it will moisten a few eyes, will not please those who admiredthe toughness this film had initially promised.

Photography,production design and a seductive on- and off-screen Louisiana folk soundtrackconspire to evoke the flavour of an artsy Big Easy neighbourhood, wherethe crumbling Frenchified city suburb meets the rural levee.

Butthere are annoyances: Bobby's habit of spouting literary quotations gratesafter about the 10th reprise, and one can be forgiven for preferring the stateof the house pre-Purslane to the coffee-table-book Southern interior it becomesafter her feminine makeover.

Thoughshe's now pushing 20, Johansson still makes a believable adolescent dropout,and, as in Lost In Translation, thecamera still can't get enough of her face.

Butit is Travolta who is the real magnet here, old beyond his years, with whitehair, a sagging wine gut, and a lazy Alabama accent that goes faintly Oxbridgewhen he is standing on his professorial dignity.

Prod cos: El Camino Pictures, Crossroads Film, Bob Yari Prods
Int'l sales:
Screen Gems
Shainee Gabel, DavidLancaster, Paul Miller, Bob Yari
Scr: Shainee Gabel, from the novel Off Magazine Street byEverett Capps
Elliot Davis
Prod des:
Sharon Lomofsky
Lee Percy
Nathan Larson, GraysonCapps
Main cast:
John Travolta,Scarlett Johansson, Gabriel Macht, Deborah Kara Unger