Cluttered fiction can't find its focus

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Oliver Stone's "JFK" wasn't about JFK, it was a historically incorrect look at a legal investigation into the president's murder. Emilio Estevez's "Bobby" isn't about RFK and has even less to do with historical accuracy.

Sam Emerson
Demi Moore plays cabaret singer Virginia Fallon, a character at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert F. Kennedy was shot in "Bobby."
Click photo for larger image.


Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Anthony Hopkins.
Director: Emilio Estevez.
Rating: R for language and brief nudity.

"Bobby," opening today, is Estevez's pet project. He wrote it, worked for seven years to get it produced, directed it and performs in it. Set at the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel on June 5, 1968, the film follows the lives of a disparate assortment of fictional people at the hotel on the day Kennedy was shot.

If there's a central star in the large ensemble cast it's Kennedy, who appears in documentary footage throughout the film, as if to imply that the rest of the movie recounts actual events. It doesn't, but there are so many top film stars walking in and out of frame that it's easy to forget. Laurence Fishburne plays an easygoing sous chef in the Ambassador's kitchen. Anthony Hopkins, one of the film's executive producers, is the hotel's former doorman who is unable to build a new life in retirement. Helen Hunt and Estevez's dad, Martin Sheen, play a middle-aged couple trying to rejuvenate their marriage. Demi Moore and Mr. Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, play high-profile characters but don't interact. The marquee credits go on to include Lindsay Lohan, Harry Belafonte, Nick Cannon, William H. Macy, Christian Slater, Elijah Wood and more.

In the same way Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" focused on the state of the nation during serial killer David Berkowitz's New York murder spree, each of "Bobby's" characters seem to represent a negative aspect of 1960s American culture: racism, drugs, immigration, breakup of the family, alienation, the draft and the Vietnam War. Their stories have little or nothing to do with Kennedy or his Democratic primary campaign, but most of their characters converge in the chaotic moment in the hotel's crowded kitchen when Sirhan Sirhan, briefly played by David Kobzantsev, pulls out a pistol. Some of the fictional characters die, some don't.

The problem with "Bobby" isn't that it consists of multiple fantasies wrapped around a historical event and surgically selected documentary sound bytes that propagate a mythology of Kennedy as America's flawless martyred savior. Estevez's fictional characters, frankly, aren't that interesting. Some of the vignettes could have been expanded into workable scripts, but jumbled together in brief snippets as they are, they're simply not compelling. None of the actors is to blame. Writer-director-actor Estevez bit off far more than he could chew.

It's unclear why he didn't choose to follow the more interesting stories of some of the actual people who were in the right kitchen at the wrong time: novelist George Plimpton, hotel maitre d' Karl Uecker, Olympic medalist Rafer Johnson and former Los Angeles Raider Rosey Grier, who in the confusion jumped Sirhan as the shots were being fired and detained him until police arrived. And out of respect for the five people who were wounded that night, maybe somebody should have mentioned ABC News reporter William Weisel, radio reporter Ira Goldstein, the United Auto Workers' Paul Schrade and Democratic party activists Irwin Stroll and Elizabeth Evans.

John Hayes can be reached at jhayes@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1991.


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