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Ambition takes Estevez's `Bobby' only so far

November 17, 2006|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

The death of Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968 marked the end of a certain type of idealism in American politics. In trying to translate the power of what Kennedy meant to so many people into a compelling film, writer-director Emilio Estevez has exceeded his reach with the historical drama "Bobby." Set on the day leading up to the assassination of RFK at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the film weaves together the stories of 22 fictionalized characters tangentially linked to that event with archival footage of the late senator as he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. In the process, Estevez draws some rather obvious parallels between the Vietnam era and present-day social and political conflicts.

It's an ambitious film drenched in sincerity and oozing with nostalgia that, despite the energy provided by its title icon via archival footage, falls flat dramatically in nearly every other way. It aspires for the Altmanesque interplay of "Nashville" or "Short Cuts" but instead feels like one of those '70s disaster epics such as "Earthquake" or "The Towering Inferno," in which a star-studded cast endures melodramatic story lines as the audience awaits the inevitable momentous event and tries to guess who will be around at the finish.

Estevez lined up Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Helen Hunt and nominees William H. Macy and Sharon Stone, as well as his father, Martin Sheen, ex-girlfriend Demi Moore, her husband Ashton Kutcher and a slew of hot young actors such as Elijah Wood, Lindsay Lohan and Shia LaBeouf for this upstairs/downstairs melange of intersecting lives. The tales of the hotel staff are more diverting than those of the guests, primarily because many scenes ominously take place in the Ambassador's kitchen, where Kennedy was gunned down, and their circumstances speak more directly to the issues the candidate was addressing.

It's easy to become swept up in the palpable enthusiasm Estevez shows toward his subject, but the pedestrian and overly expositional dialogue of the film's characters proves to be as stifling as the excerpts from Kennedy's speeches are stirring. Even with dynamic performers such as Laurence Fishburne, as a chef, and Freddy Rodriguez as a busboy, the exchanges have the ring of platitudes rather than drama. Scenes of almost pure exposition and bald declarations of themes strip the film of any possibility of subtext.

The film opens with a crawl explaining its context accompanied by familiar footage of RFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez and the Vietnam War from which we are to take that it was a time not terribly different from our own. An unpopular war rages while ideological, class and race divisions threaten to tear the country apart. Throughout the film, Estevez repeatedly points out these parallels -- as when a man explains the perils of a new method of voting and warns of hanging chads -- but never moves beyond that observation.

Whereas Oliver Stone has had a career to examine the many gripping aspects and conflicts of the volatile 1960s, Estevez attempts to do it in less than two hours. The result is a Cliffs Notes movie skimming the decade's greatest hits of pop culture references and isms. When characters banally discuss movies such as "Bonnie and Clyde" and "The Graduate," it feels as though they're merely name-dropping.

The weakest of the micro-dramas -- one featuring Sheen and Hunt as bored (and boring) Easterners suffering from psychological malaise; he's depressed, she's lost her identity in materialism -- seems to exist strictly to mark the rise of pop psychology. Likewise, an overlong, indulgent sequence featuring naive campaign workers (LaBeouf, Brian Geraghty) dropping acid with the hotel's resident drug dealer (Kutcher) achieves little beyond reminding us that the '60s was the Age of Aquarius and that people did a lot of drugs, while also allowing the director to depict the requisite subjective acid trip.

Estevez, who also plays alcoholic lounge singer Moore's dutiful husband, acquits himself far better as a director than as a writer. Working in episodic television in recent years, he has moved beyond early efforts behind the camera such as "Wisdom" and "Men at Work," and he does a good job of moving between stories and establishing milieu. Aside from the LSD interlude and the trite use of Simon and Garfunkel over a key sequence, his directing choices such as using actual footage of Kennedy rather than an actor are sound and make the film more watchable than it might have been.

As a screenwriter, however, Estevez seems hamstrung by too much reverence for both the '60s and Kennedy. The approach limits him to dealing in archetypes rather than flesh-and-blood characters who would have elevated the drama to something more memorable. We've seen all these characters before, and other than Timmons, Christian Slater's racist kitchen supervisor, and Miguel, a kitchen worker played by Jacob Vargas, they threaten to recede into the hotel's wallpaper.

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