Written and directed by Shainee Gabel

Lions Gate, opens December 29

“Everyone knows that books are better than life—that’s why they’re books,” explains Pursy Will (Scarlett Johansson), in the exasperating Southern-lit seminar A Love Song for Bobby Long. Well, not all books, and not all movies. To call Shainee Gabel’s debut, with its extensive name-dropping (Dickens, Molière, Carson McCullers) and defrocked-prof center (John Travolta), a film for English majors is both not far from the truth and potentially actionable by the MLA. (The title song, played over the end credits, pinches Eliot: “I grow old, I grow old/Wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Which is a bad idea, but not as bad an idea as having Travolta extravagantly pronouncing Eliot “Eliot-uh.”) Trailer-trash teen Pursy heads from Palm City, Florida, to New Orleans after learning, too late, that her long-estranged mother, Lorraine, has died. A popular (and promiscuous) local singer, Lorraine has left her house to her still-resentful daughter—and to two alcoholic friends, white-haired Bobby Long and scruffy Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht).

Three’s a crowd. Blowhard Bobby harasses high school dropout Pursy (at one point suggesting a threesome) and puts his future in the hands of Lawson, all the while embroidering his obnoxious pronouncements with holy glowing lines from literatcha. (If only he’d thrown in some Ralpha Waldo Emahsonah: “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”) Protégé turned confidant turned boozing-buddy roommate, Lawson has spent nearly a decade writing—and occasionally burning—a book about the supposedly charismatic Bobby, lines of which serve as the purple voice-over. At least Macht emerges relatively unscathed from the mess, content to brood and mutter self-loathing observations while Johansson and (most painfully) Travolta spoon their Southern accents out of a jar and spread it all over the humid scenery. The identity of Pursy’s father will hardly surprise you—but something’s clearly wrong if, after nearly two hours of shapeless mopery, the revelation seems like it should come with a springy boinggg! sound. ED PARK