What a day at the famous Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Sharon Stone is doing Lindsay Lohan's nails. Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte are playing chess in the lobby. Elijah Wood is about to get married. Demi Moore is getting plastered in her hotel room, much to the dismay of Emilio Estevez. Ashton Kutcher's selling drugs, Heather Graham is trysting with William H. Macy (!), Laurence Fishburne is spouting philosophy in the kitchen, Helen Hunt is fretting about having the wrong shoes for an important reception, Christian Slater just got fired from his job, and hey, isn't that Pacey from "Dawson's Creek" in the suit and tie, giving orders?
The ensemble cast of "Bobby" is a 21st century version of the star-splashed posters for those old disaster flicks of the 1970s. (Dean Martin as "Captain Vernon Demerest." Burt Lancaster as "Mel Bakersfield." Helen Hayes as "Ada Quonsett.") Written and directed with much passion and sentimentality (and something less than subtlety) by Emilio Estevez, "Bobby" takes place on June 5, 1968 --the day when Robert F. Kennedy won the Democratic primary in California, concluded his speech to the adoring throng in the Ambassador East by saying, "And now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there," was rushed through the kitchen so he could get to a press conference in the Colonial Room -- and was shot dead.
For many idealists, it was a death blow to the 1960s as well. First JFK in 1963, then Martin Luther King in the spring of 1968 -- and then, just a few months later, they killed Bobby, too.
"Bobby" isn't a biopic of RFK, nor is it an Oliver Stone-esque piece of hypothetical fiction about the circumstances of his murder. We see and hear Kennedy in newsreel footage and in voiceover excerpts of some of his most memorable speeches, but it's the idea of Kennedy, the hope he represented, that Estevez is interested in exploring. He does so in the most old-fashioned of ways with a "day in the life" film featuring nearly two dozen familiar faces and more than a dozen story lines, all taking place in and around the Ambassador East on the day of Bobby's arrival.
Although hardly anyone in the story has even met RFK, nearly everyone feels a connection to him and has strong feelings about his arrival and what his ascendancy to the presidency could mean for the country. (Oddly, Estevez chooses to make everyone a fan of Kennedy. I kept waiting for the arrival of at least one conservative character who would criticize the "ruthless Bobby" and explain why he's a Nixon man all the way.)
Some of the celebrity casting is distracting. The first time we see Moore as a vaguely Elizabeth Taylor-ish, rapidly aging, booze-guzzling entertainer, and Estevez playing her loyal but weary manager-husband, we're reminded they were a couple in the Brat Pack days.
Meanwhile, Moore's current husband, Ashton Kutcher, unconvincingly plays a long-haired, LSD-pushing drug dealer. With his bad wig, round glasses and period-piece hippie clothes, Kutcher looks like he's dressed for a Halloween party. His role is a meaningless distraction and should have been cut from the film.
Other characters are more closely tied to Kennedy. Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon are young campaign workers who are fiercely devoted to the Kennedy dream. Macy is the liberal manager of the hotel, who insists that everyone be given time off to vote and fires Christian Slater's kitchen manager for making racist remarks. Estevez' real-life father, Martin Sheen, is a wealthy businessman who supports Kennedy, with Helen Hunt playing his jittery younger wife, who doesn't know how to deal with her husband's recent bout with depression.
In one of the most effective story threads, Lindsay Lohan is a teenage girl just out of high school who's going to wed a former classmate (Elijah Wood), because a marriage will mean he'll be shipped to Germany instead of Vietnam. (As she did in "Prairie Home Companion," Lohan proves she's much better in a low-key supporting role than trying to carry some junky romantic comedy like "Just My Luck." If she paces herself, she could become a real actress.)
Sharon Stone has some poignant moments as Macy's wife, who runs the hair salon and acts as confidante-adviser to Lohan's bride-to-be and to Moore's actress-songstress, who's on the "wrong" side of 40 and is no longer in demand as a leading lady. When Stone confronts her husband about the affair he's having, her words are pure and authentic ("We don't do this! Other couples do this, but not us!"), and her pain is palpable.
Hopkins has a strangely underdeveloped role as a former doorman who spends his days hanging out in the lobby, bantering with his old friend Harry Belafonte. (He's like a character from "Grand Hotel," commenting on all the greats and near-greats that have come and gone.) Even more bizarre is a drug-trip sequence featuring a naked Shia LaBeouf, and I could have gone my whole life without typing those words.
Sometimes Estevez overreaches. There's a wordy but mostly effective scene in the kitchen, with Laurence Fishburne counseling an angry Mexican busboy on how to let go of his rage -- but later in the film, when another busboy (Freddy Rodriguez in an excellent performance) gives Fishburne his tickets to the Dodgers game that night, Fishburne reacts to this simple gesture as if Rodriguez had offered to donate a kidney. He draws a picture of a crown on the kitchen wall and scribbles, "The Once and Future King," and if you think RFK will later pass by that graffiti, hold that thought.
When characters talk about Don Drysdale or "The Graduate" (which was actually released a year earlier) or "Planet of the Apes," the 1960s references feel a bit forced. The musical selections are mostly tame and predictable, though Estevez's decision to use a reworked Simon & Garfunkel version of "Sounds of Silence," which is so closely tied to "The Graduate," turns out to be a brave and emotionally powerful move.
With 20-plus characters milling about and sometimes bumping into one another on one hectic day, Estevez wants "Bobby" to be an American epic on the order of the late great Robert Altman's "Nashville." To that end, he falls short. Sometimes the characters talk as if they're in a Modern American History course, explaining the mood and the times to high school freshmen.
Then again, 1968 was closer to 1941 than it is to 2006. For anyone under 45, the assassination of RFK is indeed ancient history -- not a memory of a dream dying. "Bobby" does a solid job of telling one generation what the world was like in the summer of 1968, and reminding another generation of a time when they believed a politician could change the world.