It’s all over but the box-office math. As I pop a Maalox and say an enthusiastic goodbye to a dyspeptic year at the movies that produced very little joy and a lot of acid reflux, here’s some of what happened at the end:
A Love Song for Bobby Long. A chicken-fried Southern Gothic tone poem in the style of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, with wonderful, atmospheric cinematography of New Orleans and an offbeat but ingratiating performance by a bloated, prissy and unrecognizable John Travolta that really has to be seen to be believed. (Some critics have boiled him like a crawfish, but I liked him.) Based on a colorful and elegiac novel called Off Magazine Street by Ronald Everett Capps, one of the growing breed of new Southern writers hanging around the French Quarter these days soaking up the decadence and the bourbon, it tells the lazy tale of three desperate losers who think they’ve gone as far as they can and find out they can go a little further after all. A used-up country singer named Lorraine dies, leaving her only possession-a battered old house with peeling paint and rotting floorboards-to her estranged 18-year-old daughter, Purslane Hominy Will. (Only in the South, folks, only in the South.)
When Pursy (Scarlett Johansson), a high-school dropout with a loose libido (she’s named after a flowering weed), travels to “N’Awlins” from her lazy boyfriend’s trashy trailer in Panama City, Fla., she’s too late for her mother’s funeral, and the house she inherited is already occupied by Bobby Long (Travolta), a former English professor who has fallen on hard times, and Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht), his former student and protégé-two alcoholic hobos who have established squatter’s rights and have no intention of leaving. Although it is hate at first sight, this trio of reprobates somehow become reluctant roommates, forming a strange interdependent bond that takes on the structure of a surrogate family. As they move from a Louisiana summer hot as sizzling lard into a cold, rainy New Orleans winter, they all stop insulting each other long enough to make a difference in each other’s lives. The ossified professor dusts off his books long enough to tutor Pursy at home, and she gets her high-school graduation diploma. When she slaps some fresh paint on the walls and turns the condemned dump into a home with real curtains, the men stop drinking long enough to decorate a Christmas tree.
Of course they are all hiding some awful secret, and by the time the social outcasts carve a safe little piece of the world to call their own and reveal the truths that have ruined their lives, Bobby Long comes down with the mysterious coughing disease that knocked the bed slats out from under Greta Garbo’s La Dame aux Camelias (whom, now that I think of it, Mr. Travolta sometimes alarmingly resembles). All of which inspires the lethargic Lawson to write a best-seller called The Love Song of Bobby Long. For this much gothic gumbo, the movie needs the kind of spice a more self-assured chef can bring to the table. Director Shainee Gabel is obviously infatuated with the way three misfits turn cynicism and despair into an infusion of hope through the restorative bond of friendship. But she lacks the experience and objectivity to transfer her characters from the written page with qualities that stretch beyond the limits of eccentricity.
Still, the acting is rich and the dialogue is fertile with literary imagery. Ms. Johansson grows more intriguing with each role. Sensitive, hunky and vulnerable, Mr. Macht is a major discovery. And John Travolta, making a sincere bid for critical attention as a serious actor, should be applauded for his courage and lack of inhibition. Reading Carson McCullers paperbacks and quoting everyone from George Sand to Molière while swishing through the house with a terminal hangover in a red paisley dressing gown, his white hair stuffed into a cowboy hat, his gut hanging out of his underwear and his fat, hairy feet overlapping the sides of his dirty sandals, he’s Truman Capote with the vapors. What some call flamboyant bravery others dismiss as too much ham for the salad. But conjuring memories of my own student days in the bayou belt, I recall English professors on Southern campuses who were the spitting image of everything Mr. Travolta says and does in this film. I doubt if he could squeeze into his sexy white suit from Saturday Night Fever again if he lived on iceberg lettuce for a year, but in my opinion he’s lost none of his charisma, and as an artist of maturity and depth, I think he’s aging just fine.
The Woodsman offers a rare and uncommonly compassionate look at pedophilia, a psychological disorder most of us regard with horror and ignorance, and provides Kevin Bacon with the best role of his career. Nicole Kassell makes a formidable debut as the director of this bold study of a convicted child molester; the film is told with quiet precision and a refreshing absence of sensationalism. Newly released from prison, determined to reform and desperate to live a normal life, Walter (Mr. Bacon) is challenged at every turn by a sister who fears him, abused by cops who torture him, misunderstood by a shrink who distrusts him and judged blindly by a cruel society that wishes he would just disappear. Although the director never shies away from the nature of Walter’s crimes, her cameras use distance and restraint to turn an archetypal pariah into a man with feelings of hope, pain and remorse. Even when he returns to the familiar, disastrous patterns of behavior that destroyed him, Mr. Bacon’s persuasive performance made me root for Walter to overcome his weakness and defeat his demons.
This is not one of those bleeding-heart “pedophiles are people, too” jobs, but you can’t help but want to help Walter. With Mr. Bacon in the role, you realize that child molesters are not two-headed vampires. On the surface, they look, act, walk and talk just like everyone else. Without editing the role for nice-guy appeal, there is such a powerful emotional undertow in Mr. Bacon’s performance that he makes you care about the human being hiding behind the mask of sadness. Throughout the film, he is under constant surveillance by the law and by the community, and it is this creepy sense of being watched that gives this extraordinary film an edgy depth reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s early works. It would have been easy to stage a freak show about society’s most feared predator, with all the clichés in the tabloid headlines to urge the audience into a violent reaction. But this is a careful, poignant, intelligently observed film full of tragic irony that both repels and touches the viewer.
Mr. Bacon’s wife, Kyra Sedgwick, lends strong support as the one woman he trusts enough to share his secret, and Mos Def, the rapper, is ominous as the cop who hounds him with the ugly metaphor of the woodsman who cuts open the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood and finds the remains of a half-eaten child inside. The Woodsman doesn’t preach about the crime or beg rehabilitation and forgiveness for the serial abusers who prey on children, but the way Mr. Bacon internalizes his character without making him a monster, the subject ends up more complex and exquisitely realized than you expect going in. A sobering film for us all.
Beyond the Sea. Kevin Spacey’s cheesy Bobby Darin biopic, is like a lounge revue on a second-class cruise ship. You might watch it if you were in the middle of the Atlantic on a Tuesday night with nothing else to do, but you sure don’t want to pay money to do it. The Bobby Darin story is nothing new, and in Mr. Spacey’s direction of it-as well as in his portrayal of the finger-popping heel-the vu is numbingly déjà. He stands in the spotlight in the middle of the Coconut Grove, like Jeannette MacDonald in the ruins of San Francisco, and … sings! Using a TV special about his life as a format for nostalgia, Darin/Spacey says, “Memories are like moonbeams-we do with them what we want.” It’s a signal that the movie you are about to see is going to be a mess. Dipping into the flashbacks, he comes up with a jumble of film clips that touch ever so lightly into the saga of a miserable sap for whom life was a cabaret and all the fun was missing. Sickly little Bobby Cassotto from the Bronx, his heart permanently damaged by rheumatic fever, is shoved and shamed into the center spot by a stage mother who wouldn’t give up (Brenda Blethyn). Struggling for fame in the shadow of Sinatra, he takes the name Darin from the last five flashing letters of a broken sign on a Mandarin restaurant. His family-mother Polly, sister Nina (Caroline Aaron) and Nina’s husband Charlie (Bob Hoskins)-sweat and bleed to make him a star. “Splish Splash,” written in 20 minutes, becomes a trendy hit that keeps the sock hops bopping, but never satisfied with being a teen idol, Darin longs to croon standards at the Copacabana.
Singing “La Mer” (“Beyond the Sea”) in a bright yellow suit on the set of an Italian movie, he meets shallow 50’s artifact Sandra Dee. Their marriage shows him in an oxygen mask and her guzzling gin. It’s a championship bout from breakfast to bed, with dialogue to match. He: “Kissing Troy Donahue is not acting.” She: “Oh no? Well, you try it!” You get his toupees, his belly-up acting career, the changing music scene, her battle with the bottle. For real drama, he discovers his obnoxious, loud-mouthed sister Nina was his real mother-a blow from which he never recovered. Seven movies, 10 Grammys, several gold records, and he was never happy. Dead from a heart attack in the middle of a comeback. It’s a familiar story, and Mr. Spacey knocks himself out trying to find a new way to keep it from dropping dead before Darin does. He is not aided by a British cast faking American accents, and he is broadsided by Kate Bosworth, whose Sandra Dee looks more like Loni Anderson. The only take-home souvenir offered by Kevin Spacey the director, producer and star is the unveiling of Kevin Spacey the singer. He’s too old to play Bobby Darin, but he sounds remarkably like the real deal. The big-band arrangements are smashing, and Mr. Spacey swings in tune with polish and class. Buy the record and enjoy the music. The rest of Beyond the Sea can only be endured with your eyes closed.
2004’s Best and Worst: Kinsey to the Kranks
The 10 Best Films of 2004
1. Million Dollar Baby
4. Bad Education
5. Fahrenheit 9/11
6. A Home at the End of the World
8. Open Water
9. The Assassination of Richard Nixon
10. The Motorcycle Diaries
(Honorable mentions: The Return, Being Julia, The Incredibles, Criminal, The Woodsman, Broadway-The Golden Age, Vera Drake, In Good Company, Bright Young Things, P.S., The House of Flying Daggers, Hero, The Z-Channel.)
The 10 Worst Films of 2004
1. I § Huckabees
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
6. The Village
7. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
8. Van Helsing
9. The Brown Bunny
10. Christmas with the Kranks
(Additional hisses and boos to Before Sunset, Closer, Birth, De-Lovely, Manchurian Candidate and others too numerous to mention and too painful to remember.)