Saturday, January 06, 2007

'Bobby' gets the essence of the 60s

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone named “Bobby” the worst movie of 2006 for exploiting instead of honoring the late Robert Kennedy’s life and death. There were far worse movies last year.

It is true that writer/director Emilio Estevez isn’t one of the best filmmakers working today. He isn’t even a George Clooney. Even so, he has made a movie that has moments that are moving, humorous and truthful.

Very little of “Bobby” is specifically about Robert Kennedy. We see footage of his speeches and his campaign tour, but we don’t really get a sense of the man or his politics. This isn’t a movie showing the behind scenes workings of the politician. Instead the film tries to capture the essence of the era and that, for a generation, Bobby Kennedy was a last hope.

Former Brat Packer Estevez takes the mosaic approach of films like “Magnolia,” “Short Cuts” and “Crash” of having series of parallel plotlines and characters that converge. In this case that convergence point is Kennedy’s assignation at the Ambassador Hotel.

The film’s cast is a who’s who of veteran and up and coming actors that includes Anthony Hopkins, Martin Sheen, Laurence Fishburne, Harry Belafonte, William H. Macy, Christian Slater, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Helen Hunt, Lindsey Lohan, Elijah Wood, Shia LaBeouf, Ashton Kutcher, Freddy Rodriguez and others.

With a cast so large the film is often in danger of collapsing in on itself from its own weight. Some plotlines feel like extraneous filler. For example, Macy’s hotel manager having an affair with switchboard operator Heather Graham is underdeveloped and a waste of time.

The film’s oddest plot focuses on a married couple played by Sheen and Hunt. Their characters are only faintly sketched. All you know about them is that they are going to Kennedy’s speech and that Hunt has brought the wrong shoes for her dress so they need to go buy a new pair. One can’t fault Sheen and Hunt’s acting, which is fine, they make a cute couple, but their scenes add little to the proceedings.

Many of the other plots do stick. The strongest shows the politics of the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen, the hierarchy of which goes from white to black to Hispanic. These scenes do a fine job encapsulating the racial tension of the era, in an effective, if somewhat overly simplistic fashion.

Many critics complain that Estevez’ dialogue is tin-eared, but Fishburne, as the head chef, delivers a a powerful and truthful monologue about the angry young man. Fishburne is an actor who is brilliant at giving speeches, but Estevez, as a writer, deserves credit for it is more than just Fishburne’s performance that makes the scene memorable.

Lohan and Wood have an interest plot in which Lohan agrees to marry Wood to keep him out of the Vietnam War. Lohan, who has been getting more attention as a darling of the tabloids than for acting, gives a sweet and sincere performance that shows she more than just a Paris Hilton-esque bimbo. Wood, who will probably spend the rest of his career trying to get out from underneath “Lord of the Rings,” also gives a realistic and believable performance.

The film’s most entertaining plotline centers on Kennedy volunteers LaBeouf (“Holes”) and Brian Geraghty (“The Guardian”) skipping out on signing up voters to take acid for the first time. Their drug induced exploits provide the film with some much needed, and quite amusing comic relief.

Some might find it inappropriate that a film trying to depict such a tumultuous time would digress into drug humor, instead of showing the dangers of drugs, but these scenes don’t feel out of place or forced and help to create the atmosphere of the time.

Moore as a fading star and Stone as the hotel hairdresser share a scene that is surprisingly effective. Moore has never been the greatest actress and Stone is a good actress (see “Casino” as prove) with poor judgment (“Basic Instinct 2”), but their scene is full of pain and honesty as they talk about what it is like to get older.

Perhaps the film’s heart is Hopkins as the former manager of the hotel, who still lingers around because the hotel feels more like home than his actual home. He sits around waiting for someone to play chess with, usually settling for Belafonte. Hopkins and Belafonte’s scenes together are charming and genuine and are some of the best moments of the film.

There are more plots and characters, but to get into all of them would take far too long. The better plots attempt to recreate the time period and for the most part are successful in doing this.

Estevez doesn’t quite capture the importance of Kennedy, but he certainly honors him well enough. His film is a good starting pointing for younger viewers, but further examination is necessary. For some, this film may encourage that exploration.

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