Saturday, December 16, 2006
Stranger than fact
By Edward Copeland
When filmmakers decide to tell true stories, they have a tendency to combine real people into composite characters and change facts to suit their dramatic purposes. Often, these things can be forgiven. Other times they cannot and that is the case with Emilio Estevez's Bobby, which creates a fictional world in the Ambassador Hotel, the site of Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 assassination, without apparent rhyme or reason, and burdens the movie with an ensemble where capable actors are an endangered species, not that there are any full-blooded characters worth wasting on performers with talent anyway.
The RFK assassination, while certainly well known and talked about, has never been given as much detail as other shootings of political leaders, so I was surprised to learn that five other people were wounded when Sirhan Sirhan opened fire on the presidential candidate in the hotel's kitchen. You always hear about John Connally being wounded when JFK was killed and while Tim McCarthy and Thomas Delahunty have faded from memory, everyone knows that James Brady also took a bullet when John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan. I've never seen anything that mentioned the other victims of the RFK shooting, which makes Bobby all the more infuriating because he gives their wounds to fictional creations instead of the real people who were shot. On top of the substituting of fiction for fact, Bobby also gets hampered by Estevez's frequent use of actual news footage of the time. The footage of RFK and other 1968 events are so compelling, I couldn't help but wish that he'd opted to make a full-fledged documentary instead. We keep being jerked away from the real footage to the manufactured one, overpopulated with a large cast of underwritten characters, many of whom are played by weak performers such as Demi Moore as a boozy singer, Ashton Kutcher giving perhaps the worst portrayal of an acid-dropping hippie since an episode of the 1960s Dragnet, Helen Hunt as — hell, I'm still not sure who she is supposed to be or why she's in this movie.
This doesn't even get to the subplot of Lindsay Lohan deciding to marry Elijah Wood so that he would be sent to Germany instead of Vietnam or Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty as would-be campaign volunteers who decide to spend the day of the California primary on a drug-induced excursion. Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte get some nice, quiet moments, but their story doesn't add up to much either and, surprisingly, the performer who comes off best is Sharon Stone as the hotel manicurist who is married to the hotel manager (William H. Macy), who is boinking switchboard operator Heather Graham on the side. Sound like a bit much? It is.
The only scenes that really seem to work with any sense of drama are those set in the kitchen with an all-too-brief appearance by Laurence Fishburne as the head chef and Freddy Rodriguez as a member of the staff obsessed with that night's Dodgers game. Rodriguez also serves the function as the man who first leaned down to the wounded RFK in that widely seen photo, though of course he's fictionalized and has no connection to the real person. Still, the kitchen scenes seem to be the only ones that come alive with any discussions of real issues as opposed to standard boilerplate melodrama that afflicts the rest of the pointless characters.
Estevez obviously aspires to make an Altmanesque portrait of a time and place. I met Robert Altman, I wish Robert Altman had been a friend of mine but Mr. Estevez, you're no Robert Altman. Hell, you aren't even Paul Thomas Anderson as far as pretenders to the Altman throne go. Estevez does have some nice moves and shots as a director but as a screenwriter, he sucks (and I'll be kind and not even mention his acting appearance as Moore's husband).
I keep coming back to the idea of how much better Bobby would have been if it had been an actual documentary. A cursory Internet search seems to indicate that many of the people who were really at the Ambassador Hotel in 1968 are still alive and their stories certainly have to be more compelling than the silly ones Estevez has concocted. Many comparisons have been made to the late, great Altman and the parallels proliferate, only minus top caliber actors, a marginally interesting script or a sure hand behind the camera. Hell, Estevez even creates the character of a foreign journalist, only she's from Czechoslovakia instead of England and she's certainly no Geraldine Chaplin. He even swipes a bit of the Upstairs, Downstairs element from Gosford Park, only Robert Kennedy ends up being the murder victim instead of Michael Gambon.
Even if you went into Bobby blind, odds are you'd guess that all these seemingly disconnected characters would somehow end up in that ballroom at the same time to see RFK just as all the characters gathered to see Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) sing at the climactic rally in Nashville. Now, how so many of them end up in the hotel's kitchen pantry to get fictionally shot in Bobby is beyond me. Because the fictional footage proves so boring, watching this movie ends up playing like it's "Waiting for Sirhan."
In a strange way, the story unfolds in such a mindnumbing fashion, you grow impatient waiting for RFK to get shot — not that Estevez offers anything illuminating there. Once it happens, the movie turns mostly into a musical montage of reaction shots, interspersed with some of RFK's speeches. He even is so imaginative to pick "The Sounds of Silence" for the soundtrack. I suppose I should be surprised that Harvey Weinstein suckered the waiters and the florists at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association into nominating Bobby for best drama, but I know better. Then again, maybe the focus on kitchen staff hits too close to home for the HFPA to ignore.