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Wayback Wednesday: Travolta

June 10, 2009

In honor of his return to the screen in the remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, this week’s Wayback Wednesday looks at three of Travolta’s previous triumphs.

Domestic Disturbance

You know John Travolta has once again fallen off the Hollywood A-list when he winds up in the Kurt Russell role in a by-the-numbers thriller. It could be worse; as routine as Domestic Disturbance is, at least it’s not Battlefield: Earth II.

Travolta stars as Frank Morrison, a boat builder and divorced father living in the picturesque seacoast town of Southport, Maryland. Frank’s twelve-year-old son Danny (Matt O’Leary) lives with his mother Susan (Teri Polo) and her new husband Rick Barnes (Vince Vaughn), a wealthy philanthropist who has made a lot of friends in his short time in Southport. A troubled kid ever since his parents went their separate ways, Danny is slow to warm to his new stepfather. When he learns that his mother is pregnant, an upset Danny stows away in the back seat of Rick’s car, hoping to sneak off to his father’s house while Rick attends a business meeting. But when Rick’s meeting ends in murder and Danny is the sole witness, Frank must decide whether to believe his son’s unlikely story or chalk it up as another case of the boy who cried wolf.

Playing on every divorced parent’s worst fears, Domestic Disturbance delivers its thrills with crude efficiency. Veteran director Harold Becker (Sea of Love, Malice) is skillful enough to build suspense sequences that quicken the pulse, no matter how predictable they are. And they are predictable indeed _ this is essentially a Jaws movie with Vince Vaughn as the shark and John Travolta as the voice of reason no one will believe until it’s too late.

Plausible human behavior is not the film’s strong suit. The plot is so mechanical and its characters so rigid, there’s not much room for moral ambiguity. Vaughn is always photographed from a low angle, all the better to convey his nostril-flaring menace. Travolta exudes good-guy charisma, but this isn’t one of his better performances. Even when Frank falls off the wagon after a long stint of sobriety, Travolta’s puppy dog charm obscures any hint of darker impulses.

While Travolta and Vaughn play out their conventional good guy/bad guy dynamic, Steve Buscemi walks away with the movie in his pocket. In his small role as a shady character from Rick’s past, Buscemi delivers a much-needed dose of genuine creepiness. It’s the one performance that doesn’t seem stamped out of a cookie cutter. Otherwise, Domestic Disturbance is strictly factory issue.

A Love Song for Bobby Long

The debut feature from writer/director Shainee Gabel takes place in the sort of timeless, idyllic Southern town you rarely see without an overpriced bucket of popcorn in your lap. This is New Orleans as a drowsy, twangy burg where folks gather their furniture in the middle of the trailer court and pluck a few songs on the gee-tar while passing the bottle around.

Enter 18-year-old Pursy (Scarlett Johansson), who arrives on the scene after learning of her mother’s death. The dilapidated house she thinks she has inherited is already occupied by two men _ former literature professor and current drunk Bobby Long (John Travolta) and his protégé Lawson Pines (Gabriel Macht). They inform her that her mother has left the house to all three of them and that they have no plans to move out. A nontraditional family is born.

Conflicts brew and secrets emerge, but the plot, unfolding like a slow, sticky Louisana afternoon, is not the movie’s strong suit. Instead, Bobby Long offers an appealing sense of community, as well as another strong, lived-in performance from Johansson (Ghost World, Lost in Translation).

Travolta is another story. With his white hair, showy drawl and shambling, dissolute manner, he tries to blend in with his surroundings and ends up sticking out like a sore thumb. He’s always the Movie Star, throwing the picture out of balance whenever he’s on the scene. Still, Bobby Long has its charms, and there are certainly worse places to spend a couple of hours.

Wild Hogs

It’s never a good sign when you find yourself thinking more about a movie’s casting process than what’s happening onscreen. In the case of Wild Hogs, it’s hard not to wonder. Did they draw names out of a hat? Play spin-the-rolodex? Or does the casting of Tim Allen, John Travolta, Martin Lawrence and William H. Macy as longtime buddies fall into the category of “so crazy it just might work”?

Not quite. In this comedy from Van Wilder director Walt Becker, the Flab Four star as weekend bikers who have settled into soft suburban life. Doug (Allen) is a dull dentist and Dudley (Macy) is an accident-prone computer geek. After taking a year off to work on his novel, henpecked Bobby (Lawrence) is forced to return to his career cleaning toilets. Woody (Travolta) has just been thrown out of his house by his wealthy model wife.

Determined to shed his complacent domesticity and reclaim his manhood, Woody talks his friends into a weeklong road trip to the west coast. (In perhaps his one show of restraint, Becker mercifully does not blare “Born to be Wild” over the scene in which the Wild Hogs hit the road.) Predictable hijinks ensue, accompanied by an unfortunate strain of homophobic humor (most notably during a skinnydipping scene that reveals more flesh than almost anyone would be interested in seeing).

The trip doesn’t truly go awry until the Hogs stop in at a real biker bar for refreshment and incur the wrath of the Del Fuegos, led by Jack (Ray Liotta), a hot-tempered goon who has no use for weekend warriors. After an act of sabotage by Woody temporarily thwarts the Del Fuegos, the Hogs go into hiding in an idyllic small town. An unlikely romance blossoms between Dudley and diner owner Maggie (Marisa Tomei), but a showdown with the Del Fuegos looms.

Wild Hogs isn’t unwatchable; it’s just sitcom-level filler at the multiplex destined for a long afterlife on basic cable. All four stars have their moments, although Travolta sometimes tries a little too hard to be funny. The road trip plotline and parade of C-list cameos (ESPN’s Sklar brothers, American Chopper’s Teutul family) suggest a 21st century Cannonball Run, and that’s not far from the truth.

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