In telling the story of the life and death of Robert F. Kennedy, writer-director Emilio Estevez could have chosen an actor to play him, could have had him hone that famously hard New England accent.
Instead, he created 22 fictional characters — disparate figures who might have populated the Ambassador Hotel on June 4, 1968 — and had their stories connect in the ballroom, just as Kennedy was giving his victory speech after winning the California primary and just before he would be assassinated.
It’s an innovative approach, and you have to give Estevez credit for that. In tackling such an emotional, historic topic on such a complex scale, the one-time Brat Packer has come a long way from his early filmmaking efforts, including the 1990 comedy “Men at Work,” in which he co-starred with his brother, Charlie Sheen. (It gave a whole new meaning to the word garbage.)
“Bobby” has far loftier ambitions. And that’s also its downfall. Estevez has crammed too many characters and too many plot lines into one building, one two-hour period. He also intersperses footage of Kennedy making speeches, meeting voters and generally being greeted like a rock star wherever he goes.
Clearly Estevez aims to draw a striking contrast between RFK and the political leaders of today, depicting him as the last great bastion of idealism, the last great hope for peace, the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since.
Purely on an entertainment scale, though, he also aspires to create something akin to “Grand Hotel” — he even has Harry Belafonte, as a retiree, quote a line from the 1932 film: “People come, people go, nothing ever happens.”
But the result feels rushed and superficial. So many people come and so many people go, and the movie bounces between them all so quickly, it’s impossible to get to know or sympathize with any of them. And when the bullets start flying wildly in the hotel kitchen, it’s hard to care whether any of them make it out alive.
Estevez probably could have cut the cast in half and come up with a richer, stronger film. Besides, the all-star lineup can be distracting: Lindsay Lohan as a young woman marrying a high school classmate (Elijah Wood) to keep him from being shipped to Vietnam! Sharon Stone as an aging beautician, with William H. Macy as her cheating, hotel-manager husband! Laurence Fishburne as the hotel’s philosophical sous chef! (The least fleshed-out story line features Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, as an East Coast executive trying to reconnect with his much younger wife, played by Helen Hunt.)
Some strong performances do emerge, however. Demi Moore does some of her most juicy, vibrant work in a while as a pop singer who’s too drunk to realize she’s past her prime. (And there is a certain gory, voyeuristic allure in watching her boozily spar with her husband/manager, played by Estevez, since the two were once engaged in real life.) She also has one great scene where she allows herself to be vulnerable and honest with Stone as she prepares to go on stage.
Joshua Jackson is solid as one of Kennedy’s top campaign aides (it’s good to see him getting work after “Dawson’s Creek”) and Ashton Kutcher provides some laughs as the intensely earnest drug dealer who introduces a couple of young, impressionable campaign volunteers (Shia LeBeouf and Brian Geraghty) to LSD.
Estevez meanders through all these story lines and more — we haven’t even mentioned Anthony Hopkins, Christian Slater, Freddy Rodriguez or Heather Graham — but never stops at any of them long enough to allow us to become immersed. And the shooting itself is, as you can imagine, violent and jarring, a mix of actual footage and recreations. But afterward, “Bobby” makes you want to watch a documentary about Bobby Kennedy instead.