It's easy to see why John Travolta was attracted to the role of Bobby Long, for it's a variation on the Bill Clintonesque, aw-shucks Southern intellectual he so brilliantly brought to life in Primary Colors. In Bobby, however, Travolta has found a Bubba who actually succumbs to his demons-which should make him an even more fascinating character to play.

Maybe a little too fascinating. Unfortunately, A Love Song for Bobby Long is exactly what the title says it is-a blinders-on obsession with a single character, an infatuation so intense that everyone else in this movie very nearly becomes irrelevant. One can't fault Travolta, really, for doing what he's doing here-letting 'er rip, chewing up the scenery, vaulting over the top-for any actor might do the same, if given the chance (a big if).

From the start, Travolta's character is both endearing and infuriating. Having abandoned his respectable life as a family man and once-inspiring professor of literature at a major Southern university, the now-slovenly Bobby is rotting away in the slums of New Orleans, spending his days drinking beer or wine or booze-sometimes all three-with the much younger Lawson (Gabriel Macht), Bobby's former student, protégé and erstwhile biographer. When the bars close, these two repair to the ramshackle house they had shared for years with a fabled jazz singer, Lorraine, who's often spoken of but never seen-because she has "passed on" just before the film's action begins. When Lorraine's estranged daughter Pursy (Scarlett Johansson) learns of her mother's death, she comes to New Orleans to claim her only inheritance-the house that she expects to find abandoned.

Bobby, however, anticipates Pursy's arrival and has his story ready: Lorraine left her house to all three of them-Pursy, Bobby and Lawson. This is a lie, but Pursy believes it, because she's absolutely mesmerized by Bobby-as is the lackadaisical Lawson. And why not? There's never a dull moment around Bobby. He's constantly spouting snatches of ringing poetry and snippets of meaningful prose; he knows everything about anything, and he's the first person in Pursy's young life to care about what's really going on with her.

A Love Song for Bobby Long has some nice touches: the subtly done renovation of the house after Pursy moves in; the languid movement of the actors, making the sticky, still air of New Orleans almost palpable. But in the end-and all the way through, actually-the film's liabilities outweigh its assets. Johansson is effectively wasted in a role that gives her very little range. Macht is admirably restrained as Bobby's intimidated acolyte, but the character is essentially so boring that a last-minute spurt of gumption can't save him. And then there's Travolta having a high old time as the troubled hero who becomes a classic character because-of course!-he's so well-versed in the classics. Harrumph.

A Love Song for Bobby Long is yet another argument against placing total artistic control in the hands of a young and/or inexperienced filmmaker-in this case, writer-director Shainee Gabel. She obviously fell so blindly in love with the story's theme-misfits are people too, and deserve to love one another like everyone else-that she abandoned all critical judgment, letting herself get swamped by sentimentality. For at the heart of what's wrong with this film is the almost painful naiveté that hangs over every important element-the plot, the characters, the setting, the acting-as heavily as Spanish moss hangs over the live-oak trees of Louisiana.