Characters and actors alike all try much too hard to be folksy and eccentric in this debut feature from writer-director Shainee Gabel. Based on a novel by Ronald Everett Capps, “A Love Song for Bobby Long” is an excessively florid Southern comedy-drama that might pass for a bit of juvenilia from the reject bin of Tennessee Williams. The picture is essentially a three-hander about a hard-bitten young woman named Pursy–short for Purslane–(Scarlett Johansson) who leaves her trailer-trash boyfriend and returns to her hometown of New Orleans for her estranged mother’s funeral. (Mom was, as it happens, one of those free-spirited artists–in this case a singer–whose memory everyone cherishes; her soul hovers benignly over everything that transpires.) There she finds that the old family home is inhabited by an unlikely pair: Bobby Long (John Travolta), a dissolute, alcoholic ex-professor of literature, and his erstwhile graduate assistant Lawson (Gabriel Macht), a would-be novelist who’s been toiling away for years on the book Bobby is certain will immortalize him. The duo tell her that they’ve inherited two-thirds of the estate, and so they’re compelled to share the place. Of course Bobby and Pursy rub one another the wrong way, with Lawson acting as mediator between them, but as time passes both thaw, and before long they’re becoming almost like family: the men help the girl to resume her studies, and Lawson and Pursy feel romantic stirrings as well. Naturally obstacles arise to complicate the relationships–and of course the trio is surrounded by an array of off-key characters to provide even greater swaths of local color than the leads do alone. But it’s inevitable that ultimately revelations will occur–all of them pretty predictable, to tell you the truth–and a warm, fuzzy but bittersweet finale will tie everything up neatly.

The cast that newcomer Gabel has assembled to play out this bowl of overcooked but bland cinematic gumbo is heavy on stars who are all wrong for their parts. Travolta has a strong screen presence, but he’s never remotely convincing as a crotchety, deep-drawling curmudgeon who spouts reams of faux literary dialogue in between prodigious gulps of his beloved liquor. One can almost hear the crack of thespian bone as the actor strains to stretch his acting muscles; it’s not a pleasant sound, nor a pretty performance. Johansson doesn’t seem quite as far out of her element as the abrasive Purcy, but despite the accent she seems utterly northern. Macht is the least objectionable of the leads. He doesn’t achieve much beyond a sort of amiable ruggedness, and can’t persuade us that Lawson would have become so devoted a companion to Bobby even after we hear the falsely poetic story of his indebtedness to the older man for an incident in the distant past (one of the long soliloquies in Gabel’s script that feels like a poor imitation of Williams or Inge); but at least he’s more restrained than his colleagues, and so not nearly as irritating. There are a few notable faces among the supporting cast–Deborah Kara Unger and Sonny Shroyer, for example–but they make only fleeting appearances and little impression.

The best thing about “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” in fact, is the look of the picture. The New Orleans locales, which range from run-down neighborhoods to more glamorous spots, are colorful and eye-catching, and Elliot Davis’ camera captures them elegantly; some of the images, even in domestic scenes, are positively ravishing. But the visuals can’t make up for Gabel’s awkwardly florid writing and uncertain direction. Perhaps with some sensitive script doctoring, more assured helming and a better-chosen cast, the story could have been worked into something reasonably flavorful and diverting. As is, though, it’s an overripe slice of southern hokum that wastes its stars’ talents and our time.