As mere mortals, we cannot divine why movie stars take certain roles, but it’s a safe bet that Sean Penn in The Assassination of Richard Nixon and John Travolta in A Love Song for Bobby Long didn’t do these low-key, low-budget projects for the dough. One assumes they “believed in the material”: They thought they were chomping into some meaty stuff. In both cases, that means portraying misfits with delusions of grandeur: Few performers don’t relish digging into a doofus slathered in poignance, with a side dish of common-man tragedy.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is based on a true event: In 1974, a Pennsylvania furniture salesman named Sam Bicke (Penn) got it into his head to kill President Nixon, but was intercepted while flying to Washington to carry out his lunacy. Director Niels Mueller and his co-writer, Kevin Kennedy, spend the bulk of the movie setting up Bicke’s botched attempt by laying out the details of an equally botched life as an alternately simpering and self-righteous drone, separated from his wife (Naomi Watts, whose beauty is impossible to disguise even beneath an ugly ink-black hairdo), leading a dead-end existence as a mediocre salesman.
Penn is mostly in I Am Sam mode here, doing a lot of shoe-gazing and mumbly-talk, but not without adding an edge of bitter intelligence to his character; he’s just too good an actor to merely repeat himself, even when the material encourages him to. The best aspect of the story is what motivates Bicke to fix on Nixon: The white nebbish becomes radicalized watching Black Panthers such as David Hilliard interviewed on TV. Moved and inspired by Hilliard’s eloquent wrath, he makes an only slightly loopy leap to locate the nexus of America’s social and political injustices in Nixon. It’s too bad the movie plays Bicke’s conversion experience for a laugh: He goes down to his neighborhood chapter of the Panthers to lend a hand, and as a gawping honky, he’s turned away.
In response, Bicke begins a downward spiral similar to that of the fictional character his name evokes: Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Bicke begins talking to himself and the TV (“It’s all about money, Dick!” he yells at the televised president), and since we know that Nixon wasn’t assassinated, we just sit there waiting for this deluded stooge to screw up. The film’s predictability ends up trapping Penn rather than liberating him the way a small-movie role should.
Similarly, John Travolta finds no artistic breathing-room in A Love Song for Bobby Long: “I am a professor, a troubadour, a poet,” Travolta’s title character proclaims, by which time we also know he’s a drunk, a liar, and a bore. A former literature prof who shares a ramshackle New Orleans house with an equally sodden ex-student, Lawson (Gabriel Macht), these two stinky bachelors are, naturally, delighted when a perpetually pursed-lipped Scarlett Johansson shows up . . . that is, until they find out she’s inherited the joint they’ve set up their empty bottles in and may kick them out.
In one of those coincidences that could only occur in a bad Tennessee Williams play or, let’s face it, any bad movie with southern accents, Johansson’s Pursy (named for her lips?) is, like Bobby and Lawson, a lost soul in need of a family. This trio bonds over their miserableness, and so will the few of you who gather in any theater screening this li’l melodrama, writ and dee-rected by Shainee Gabel.
“You are such a shameless ham,” says Pursy to Bobby. Now, shameless hamminess is what we’ve always liked about Travolta: From his Saturday Night Fever swaggering to his Pulp Fiction comeback, grinning show-offiness is an endearing trait for him. But after a long string of expensive mistakes, Travolta may have thought doing this “small” picture, as a humbled man with prematurely white hair and given to peppering his speech with quotes from Molière and Carson McCullers, would resell him as an actor to contend with. Not necessary, John: You’re still a charmer—there was no need to strum a guitar and actually sing Bobby Long’s love song in a woozy croak, or to take your shoes off to reveal one big Bobby-toe painted fungus-black, as you do here. That’s not dramatic realism—that’s just icky.