It pains me to have to slam a film that so obviously has its heart in the right place, but BOBBY is such an inept and misguided effort that there’s no other option. Taking place on the day when and in the place where, the Ambassador Hotel, that the title character was assassinated, it’s a hodgepodge that wants to encapsulate the dynamic and troubled times of 1968 and Robert Kennedy’s place in them. Unfortunately, it meanders all over the place without hitting on anything of real substance of its own. The issues of civil rights, domestic unrest, and the incredible hope that Kennedy engendered in his followers are there, but there is simulacrum, not insight here.
He goes through all the right tropes, starting with giving the audience a tour of the kitchen where Sirhan Sirhan will pull the trigger. From there it’s a low-rent GRAND HOTEL, a film mentioned by one of the characters, whose denizens are a cross-section of society. A great premise. And writer/director/co-star Emilio Estevez does the audience the service of using Kennedy’s actual speeches throughout, sometimes as a snippet of television or radio in the background of a character’s hotel room, sometimes in montages playing with larger chunks of Kennedy’s still inspiring words. It makes on sorry that Estevez didn’t choose to do a documentary about the man or about that day instead of going the diction route. He is so obviously committed to Kennedy’s vision. Instead, it’s as though got as far as coming up with the characters and their particular situations and then got sidetracked by matching the contemporary footage with the re-enactment reel. Helen Hunt and Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen as a couple in town for the Kennedy reception are sketched in using only the most broad and cursory of strokes. The actors give it their all, which is saying a lot, but there’s no real resonance as bits and pieces of their lives are tossed out obliquely. It’s an odd contrast to the young couple played by Linsday Lohan and Elijah Wood who are staging their own protest of the Vietnam War by getting married. Their segments are so overwritten as to be painfully redundant despite genuinely sweet performances from both actors. In between is a love triangle between hotel manager William H. Macy, his wife, Sharon Stone, the hotel’s beauty operator, and plucky young switchboard operator Heather Graham hoping to parlay her affair into something more than an invite to the party that night. It’s a cliché all around lifted only by Macy, who invests a world of backstory into it that otherwise isn’t there. Ditto Freddy Rodriguez and Laurence Fishburne during the segments of the film that deal with race relations during Bobby’s time. They are great, he the busboy forced into working double shifts instead of being able to take his father to a baseball game, he a chef who has found a way to be proud without becoming a radical. Their speeches are pedestrian, but the passion of the sentiment behind them is bracingly evident. The best of the segments involves the political operatives doing the advance work at the hotel before Kennedy’s appearance after the day’s primary. Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon have a palpable commitment as the campaign aides twenty years younger than any campaign aides before them and writing in this part of the script that serves them and that sentiment well. Shia LeBoeuf, who is one of the best young actors working today, and Brian Geraghty as campaign volunteers who blow off ringing doorbells in favor of exploring the counter-culture in the person of the Ambassador’s resident drug-dealer, Ashton Kutcher, who plays the part as the caricature as which it is written. He’s a total loss, but LeBoeuf as the idealist whose need to be a kid maybe for the last time as he approaches adulthood is a superb mix of angst and genial silliness. The worst segment involves anything to do with the Demi Moore character of an alcoholic soon-to-be has-been singer working the hotel’s club, the fabled Coconut Grove. It is actually painful to watch her try to go deep only to find that there is no depth to be found within her actor’s took kit. On the other hand, very few contemporary actors could wear the hyper-beehive hairdo with such insouciance.
A great deal of attention has been taken to period details such as that, including filming at the Ambassador just before it was torn down. No detail is better, though, than having Harry Belafonte as part of the cast. His part, that of a retired doorman who spends the film schmoozing with retired manager Anthony Hopkins, is no great shakes as the two banter, play chess, and generally ruminate on the history of the Ambassador Hotel in his heyday. But the man himself was and is a fiery activist in progressive movements, and there is something in seeing his gravitas on the screen that is not only a delight in this context, but also a reminder of how far America has come, and how far it still has to go and carries that message better than anything else to be found in the film.
BOBBY gets points for remembering a politician who was well on his way to being a statesman when his life was cut short. As an introduction for people too young to remember him, or times that drove some to make drastic choices, it has a place. As a piece of good filmmaking, it falls short, tumbling into a bland melodrama.