November 23, 2006
A cast of dozens line up to walk through this hazy recollection of June 4, 1968, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in Bobby, a Sheen family homage to Robert F. Kennedy.
Technically, it was June 5 when any serious hope for another President Kennedy died along with the title character (Bobby is played here by himself in archival footage) when R.F.K. was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian militant. (Kennedy was shot shortly after midnight and died early in the morning.) The movie starts pre-dawn on June 4 with hotel manager Paul (William H. Macy) herding guests back into the hotel after they’ve evacuated due to a false fire alarm. With the kafuffle calmed down, retired doorman John (Anthony Hopkins) and his friend Nelson (Harry Belafonte) settle in for a day of coffee, chess and talking about the old times in the hotel’s cafe. Dwayne (Nick Cannon) and Wade (Joshua Jackson) are getting Kennedy campaign workers ready for their final primary day push, though volunteers Jimmy (Brian Geraghty) and Cooper (Shia LeBouf) are more interested in getting high. They end up in the hotel room of “salesman” Fisher (Ashton Kutcher), who upsells them from pot to acid.
On the hotel’s staff, kitchen manager Timmons (Christian Slater) has told the workers they won’t be getting time off to vote. Paul tells him that he must post a memo in English and Spanish saying that the workers will get paid leave to go vote. Paul fires Timmons (though says he can stay until the end of the week).
Perhaps because of the firing but perhaps just because of a chance encounter with Angela (Heather Graham), a hotel switchboard operator who seemed just a little too nervous about visiting one of the hotel rooms during the day (Timmons then follows her to see where she’s going), Timmons informs Miriam (Sharon Stone), the hotel’s beautician, that Paul is sleeping with Angela. This all but devastates Miriam, who has seen different stages of a woman’s life that day as she does nails for Diane (Lindsay Lohan), a girl marrying a boy (Elijah Wood) from her school so he won’t get sent to Vietnam, and Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore), a fading, drunken singer who is mean to her long suffering husband (Estevez)
The kitchen staff doesn’t know about Timmons’ firing but it likely wouldn’t bother José (Freddy Rodriguez), who is made to work a double shift despite having tickets to a Dodgers game where Don Drysdale was scheduled to set a new record. He eventually gives the tickets to Edward (Laurence Fishburne), a cook who’s made some peace with his anger over racial inequalities and who urges an angry Mexican American bus boy to do the same.
I haven’t even gotten to the couple played by Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen, and Helen Hunt — not a problem, really, as their portrayal of middle-class angst really has no particular point. The aimlessness of some of these plots is particularly apparent when viewed against the backdrop of archival footage of protests, riots, Vietnam and general social unrest as well as Robert Kennedy speeches, which is weaved into the movie. These scenes and Kennedy’s speeches are some of the best parts of the film and, when the movie pulls back from Kennedy to show the hotel room where he is on the TV and then turn its attention to the fictional characters in that room, I had the urge to crane my neck, as though I could somehow look over the actors to get back to watching the interesting stuff.
And Kennedy’s speeches are interesting stuff. While I understand that the politicians of decades past were no saints, movies I have seen recently featuring Eisenhower and now Robert Kennedy do suggest that politicians, at least those with presidential aspirations, used to speak to the country intelligently, in complete sentences with big words and about big, important ideas. Kennedy’s speeches here are shocking in their directness and in what seem like spin-free discussions of humanity and compassion and peace. These words — “compassion” especially — are now meaningless as they are used in the political sphere. But Kennedy’s speeches have an honesty and a nakedness that is unheard of in modern discourse (certainly, you seldom hear any modern political speech that sounds genuine, that features statements that actually have meanings that match the meanings of the words or that are in any way uplifting). In pictures of the Kennedy family that run under the credits, we see wealthy yuppie family members who appear to like each other and care deeply for their children — a particularly affecting Volvo ad. But in Kennedy’s speeches, we hear a man who draws on pre-Neo-Con-Catholic ideas of social justice and love and who applies them to late-1960s struggles with communism and the sort of half-measure, yet still horrifically bloody, sorta-war fought in Vietnam (portrayed here as being not so unfamiliar to 2006 conflicts). It’s fascinating to listen to — his career is so often mushed together as part of a 1960s retrospective or Kennedy family saga. In picking Kennedy as a title character, the movie had itself a fascinating person. Too bad we don’t get to see more of him. B-
Rated R for language, drug content and the assassination. Written and directed by Emilio Estevez, Bobby is two hours long and will be distributed by The Weinstein Company in wide release on Nov. 22.
— Amy Diaz