June 6, 1968. That was the date of the must-win primary for presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. It was also the day he was assassinated while leaving a campaign victory party at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. And now that infamous date is the backdrop for Bobby, writer-director Emilio Estevez's ensemble drama tracking more than 20 people who, for various reasons, are also at the Ambassador that day.
Hold on to your hats, here's the lineup: Starting in the kitchen, there's two disgruntled Latino busboys (Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas), a black cook (Laurence Fishburne) and a vaguely racist food-service manager (Christian Slater). On the first floor, there's the phone operator (Heather Graham) who's having an affair with the hotel manager (William H. Macy) whose unsuspecting wife (Sharon Stone) works in Ambassador's hair salon. Whiling away the day in the lobby are a pair of old chums, the recently retired hotel doorman (Anthony Hopkins) and his chess partner (Harry Belafonte).
Because the Ambassador is the site of that night's election party, various campaign staffers are buzzing about, including a couple go-getters (Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon), as well as a pair of less-than-dedicated door-knockers (Shia LaBeouf and Bryan Geraghty). Booked for the soirée is the boozy chanteuse Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore), accompanied by her long-suffering manager-husband (Estevez). Among the hotel's guests: a Kennedy donor and his neurotic wife (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt); a pair of kids getting married to avoid the draft (Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood); and a drug dealer (Ashton Kutcher). Toss in a sympathetic waitress, a pushy Czech reporter and an off-site subplot about Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale, and there's enough players to fuel a couple of films.
But wait, that's not all: Besides its slender roots in history and its myriad small-scale melodramas, a heavy air of wish fulfillment -- a wistful "if only" -- hangs over this enterprise.
Estevez's larger story is that our country lost something more than just one man that night -- that Kennedy's assassination derailed any hopes of peace and racial equality, ended brotherhood among disparate groups, and plunged us into the cynical malaise of the 1970s. The character not at the hotel that night, but forefronted by Estevez, is the Bobby-who-lived (not so subtly referenced within the narrative as "the once and future king"). If Kennedy had become president, the earnest Estevez suggests, maybe we wouldn't be in the mess we're in today.
We'll never know that, but it unfortunately doesn't take an expert to see that Estevez's hagiography-cum-gimmicked drama is an inadequate venture, however well-intentioned and larded with respectable actors.
Using the real-life shocker of Kennedy's assassination as the narrative glue demands that the surrounding fictional story add up to something more than a pastiche of episodes from daytime soap operas. These tiny stories, peopled by stock characters, never tie back effectively to the Aura of Bobby that Estevez tries to build, even though some of stories could have been fleshed out better to illustrate related themes. Likewise, Bobby would have been a stronger film with fewer plots, including the laughably bad drug-dealing hippie, who has inexplicably set up a drug store in a hotel room; an LSD freak-out that's as hoary as sky-high hairdos; and the roaming Czech journalist.
And there's not a speck of information about who shot Bobby Kennedy, why or whatever happened to that guy. (The unidentified Sirhan Sirhan is shown entering the hotel and, later, pulling the trigger.) It's curious that among all the stories of that June 6 that Estevez presents, he didn't include the one that really mattered.
During the duller storylines, there's some fun picking out actors from beneath their heavy period makeup and hairdos (Moore's last wig is large enough to be a voting precinct), catching up with the Rat Packers, and pondering the odd career trajectory of Estevez. For an often-cheeseball actor who made his writer-director debut with the truly dreadful 1990 garbage-man comedy Men at Work, Bobby, however flawed, certainly represents a quantum leap forward.
Estevez gives Bobby Kennedy the last word: One of his speeches from earlier in the '68 campaign, on the subject of mindless violence, plays out over the shooting and its aftermath. It's a good deal more thematically eloquent than the film, and eerily prescient: "Whenever any American's life is taken by another American unnecessarily ... whenever we tear at the fabric of the life which another man has painfully and clumsily woven for himself and his children," cautions Kennedy, "the whole nation is degraded."
What a weird world we live in today, where so many shocking moments are caught on film. There was a camera in the Ambassador kitchen that night, and Estevez incorporates portions of that footage in his assassination scene. Those few grainy glimpses mostly served to remind me that perhaps we don't need a dramatic recreation of events like this. Ultimately, Bobby's archival footage undoes Estevez's best intentions: His mini-mini-series populated with one-dimensional characters can't match the reality and the reactions of real Americans -- from those deliriously eager hands grabbing for Kennedy in the street to the shock and anguish frozen on the faces of the Ambassador guests.
Starts Thu., Nov. 23.