Thursday, February 01, 2007

Review - Bobby

Take a walk through the doors of the Ambassador hotel and you’re guaranteed to spot a few famous faces. Look, there’s Harry Belafonte and Anthony Hopkins playing chess, there’s Emilio Estevez walking his dog, and over there you’ll see Martin Sheen playing tennis with Helen Hunt. Let’s skip past William H Macy and Christian Slater having a row about racism and get something to eat; perhaps a meal cooked up by Laurence Fishburne will fit the bill? After that we can get a manicure from Sharon Stone, go and watch a drunken Demi Moore performing on stage, or maybe we could score some acid from stoned hippy Ashton Kutcher.

There are celebrities squeezed into every corner of Bobby, but none of them take the role of the titular character. In fact, despite the title, Emilio Estevez’s film isn’t really about Robert F Kennedy at all - the senator only makes fleeting appearances here, in archive footage or with brief shots of the back of his head. Instead, the film is about what Kennedy meant to the American people, and what his death meant to the country at large. Bobby is set on June 5th 1968, in the hours before Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador hotel. With that assassination, Estevez suggests, the brightest hope for America’s future was cruelly snatched away.

There probably is a great film to be made about Robert Kennedy and his thwarted legacy, but Bobby definitely isn’t it. Estevez is going for something big here, a wide-ranging look at 60’s Americana which tries to depict the impact of an extraordinary man through the lives of ordinary people; but the final film doesn’t come close to matching his laudable ambitions. Bobby is a sluggish, clichéd and dramatically inert picture, and hardly a fitting tribute to its subject. It aspires to the status of something like Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville, but a better comparison would be Grand Hotel rewritten by Paul Haggis.
Bobby’s biggest problem is paradoxically something which might have been seen as its biggest asset - the cast. With some 20-odd characters at his disposal, Estevez struggles to find a proper place for every member of the starry ensemble, and as a result the appearance of so many household names is (a) distracting and (b) pointless. Few of the players are given the time and space required to breath life into their paper-thin roles, and none of them can create characters big enough to exceed their real-life celebrity status. Watching Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt argue over shoes is a curious experience when we only see the actors and haven’t got a clue who they are supposed to be playing; and this weird disconnect between performer and role pervades the whole film.

It’s no surprise to see the actors’ performances suffer under the circumstances, and the displays here are generally mediocre. The one star who does make an positive impact is Sharon Stone, surprisingly bringing soul and emotion to the picture, and she’s probably the one person who can view this picture as a success. The likes of William H Macy, Laurence Fishburne and Martin Sheen are hardly stretched with this material, but they’re reliably professional about it and at least they sometimes give their scenes a little spark; few others can even raise their game to that level, though. Demi Moore overacts horribly as the permanently soused diva, Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood are insipidness squared, Helen Hunt is annoyingly one-note, and Ashton Kutcher’s turn as a hippy is hilariously unconvincing.

Perhaps Estevez could have fashioned Bobby into something worth watching if he had simply cut down on the amount of things going on at the one time and allowed a few of the more relevant strands to develop, because there’s a lot of stuff here which feels ridiculously inconsequential. When the film is building towards such a tragic event, why are we supposed to care about Demi Moore’s drunken ramblings? Or the marriage of convenience between Lohan and Wood? Or Macy’s adultery? Given the fact that few of these walking clichés have anything to do with the subject at hand - except by the most tenuous of tangents - couldn’t Estevez have found time to at least play lip service to the motives behind Sirhan Sirhan’s attack? He was a Palestinian who was outraged at Kennedy’s pro-Israel standpoint, but all we get is an anonymous young man who turns up at the hotel out for blood, bumping shoulders with the director as he does so.

As a director, Estevez is sloppy and unfocused. His pacing is poor, he slips too easily into hackneyed scenes (like a hugely embarrassing ‘trip’ sequence after a couple of kids try LSD for the first time) and his habit of tossing endless cultural references into the film (The Graduate, Andy Warhol) feels like lazy name-dropping. As a writer, Estevez has a tin ear, allowing too much platitudinous dialogue to pass the actors’ lips, and many scenes in Bobby feature people sitting around literally discussing the picture’s major themes. Everyone gets the chance to deliver a speech on the importance of democracy, tolerance and humility; but the screenplay’s appallingly trite and unsubtle nature continually makes Bobby’s lessons and epiphanies ring resoundingly false.

There’s no doubt that Bobby is a very bad film, but it’s a very bad film which happens to have a very good ending. When the fateful shots are fired, Estevez suddenly shows himself to be remarkably adept at depicting the ensuing chaos and dismay; he cuts the sound, and allows the speech Kennedy made after Martin Luther King’s assassination to run on the soundtrack. It’s a brilliant move. “What has violence ever accomplished? What has it ever created? No martyr’s cause has ever been stilled by an assassin’s bullet. No wrongs have ever been righted by riots and civil disorders. A sniper is only a coward, not a hero; and an uncontrolled, uncontrollable mob is only the voice of madness, not the voice of reason” he says in a speech which seems to prefigure his own fate just two months later. This intelligent, persuasive and moving oration gives Bobby an unexpectedly powerful climax, but it’s too little too late.

For almost two hours Bobby drags us through one misguided scene after another, with Estevez displaying his inadequacy at every turn, but in the final five minutes he finally manages to hit the right note by simply letting the man speak for himself. In fact, Bobby tells us more about its subject through the archive footage and voiceover work than any of Estevez’s witless little soap opera-style subplots can hope to manage. Bobby ultimately achieves its goal - it gives us an idea of why Robert Kennedy’s death was such a terrible loss - but what a shame one has to sit through two hours of ineptitude to see it..