On the face of it, Bobby looks like a can’t-miss proposition. This drama features nearly two dozen stars in a tapestry of stories centered around the Ambassador Hotel on the night of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, something went very, very wrong in the execution. Bobby is certainly earnest and well-intentioned, yet it has all the depth of a junior high school student’s book report.
Writer/director Emilio Estevez does his best to borrow the style of the late, great Robert Altman, who specialized in this kind of sprawling, multi-character ensemble piece. However, he overdoses by introducing far too many characters, most of whom have story arcs that have little or nothing to do with RFK. Among those we meet: a Hispanic kitchen worker (Freddie Rodriguez) forced to work a double shift when he’d rather attend a Dodgers game; a drunken lounge singer (Demi Moore) and her long-suffering husband (Estevez); a depressed guy (Martin Sheen) and his trophy wife (Helen Hunt); two RFK campaigner volunteers (Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty) who get turned onto LSD by a hippie dealer (Ashton Kutcher); a campaign worker (Nick Cannon) who wants to meet Kennedy; and a veteran doorman (Anthony Hopkins) and his chess-playing buddy (Harry Belafonte). Then there’s the kitchen supervisor (Christian Slater), who is fired by the hotel manager (William H. Macy), who is having an affair with a switchboard operator (Heather Graham), unbeknownst to his hair dresser wife (Sharon Stone). This is saying nothing of the kitchen cook (Laurence Fishburne) or the Soviet journalist (Svetlana Metkina) looking for an interview.
The most interesting subplot involves a young woman (Linsday Lohan) who is marrying her high school classmate (Elijah Wood) so he won’t have to go to Vietnam. That one seems to have some relevance to RFK (it was widely assumed he would withdraw troops), but many of the others do not. Because there are so many, none have the time to develop in any kind of substantial way, and therefore they mostly come across as superficial. Estevez would have been smarter to cut the number of subplots in half and then go deeper with them. Besides, it’s hard to care about some of the petty stuff the characters are going through when you know that Kennedy is soon going to be shot.
I know what Estevez was trying to do here. He wanted to show the enormous impact RFK’s assassination had on everyday people. That’s honorable, but he brings no new perspective to it. We all know that many American’s had their hopes resting on Bobby Kennedy. There was a general belief that he would change a lot of things, including race relations, for the better. His death crushed those dreams, bringing with it a sense that something special had been lost. But we already know that, don’t we? It’s more or less common knowledge. The film might have worked had Estevez found something new to say instead of just repeating the obvious. It’s like making a movie about how the ocean is wet. Who doesn’t know that?
I was reminded of a related movie, JFK, which is one of my five favorites of all time. In just the first quarter hour, Oliver Stone makes you feel the weight of John Kennedy’s assassination. His visuals and tone conveyed the deep sense of loss many Americans felt. Bobby doesn’t even begin to capture that. In the final 20 minutes, when the assassination and its aftermath occur, I didn’t feel the power I expected to. I think it’s tragic that RFK was so brutally cut down, but that’s because I understand the history of it, not because the film made me feel it.
What I resent most about Bobby is that it’s so obvious that it has no ability to be meaningful. The movie positions itself as being “important,” yet it never strives to do anything challenging or fresh. At one point, we see news footage of the real RFK combined with stock footage of the things (Vietnam protests, civil rights battles, etc.) that were taking place in 1968. This montage is set to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” Does it get any more generic than that?
There are a few things that mitigate the damage. Some of the actors give heartfelt, sincere performances. I liked Wood and Lohan a lot, and William H. Macy is always worth watching in my book. Hopkins and Belafonte are solid too, but their subplot, like a lot of them, is essentially a dead end. A few of the other stars, on the other hand, act as though they’re appearing in a cheesy 70’s all-star extravaganza like The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. They seem desperate to make an impression with their limited screen time, so they go overboard.
Whenever Kennedy himself appears on screen, it’s in grainy archive footage that has been awkwardly spliced in. Other times, a body double is used, then photographed from behind or in the background with the focus blurred. It’s distracting like you wouldn’t believe, and it robs the movie of some of its potential weight.
Do I sound like a complainer here? If so, I don’t mean to. However, I felt unexpectedly angry after walking out of Bobby. RFK’s message still has some resonance today, and as much as the movie wants to drive that home, it only proves itself completely incompetent. Oddly, I was reminded of Michael Moore’s Oscar acceptance speech a few years ago. You know – when he stood on stage at the Kodak Theater, wagging his finger and shouting at George Bush. Like Moore, Bobby had the perfect opportunity to say something profound and meaningful, and it completely failed to live up to the task.
( 1/2 out of four)
Bobby is rated R for language, drug content and a scene of violence. The running time is 1 hour and 58 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Bobby
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