If Emilio Estevez had made this film under the name Fred Smith, I suspect it would be receiving a much fairer shake at the hands of a lot of critics than it is. But because Estevez was a member of the “Brat Pack,” starred in some dubious movies (one he made himself), and is the son of Martin Sheen, neither he nor his film Bobby is getting the attention they deserve. Oh, he’s getting attention all right — being chided for his efforts to make a movie in the style of Robert Altman (no one in Hollywood has ever emulated another filmmaker, of course) and mocked for being able to recruit an all-star cast from his friends and friends of his father (such a thing is unheard of in the motion picture business). It’s just not the attention he should be getting for the film he made.
Bobby is not a perfect film. It’s a little clunky in its construction and occasionally stilted in its dialogue. It is, however, a very good film, a deeply felt film, and even in its occasional missteps is miles ahead of the simplemindedness of last year’s Crash, to which it has also been compared.
For starters, it shows an incredible lack of movie history to leap to the conclusion that any multi-story ensemble film is automatically ersatz Altman, who specialized in the form, but hardly originated it. Strangely enough, Estevez himself addresses this in Bobby with a scene in which an elderly habitue of the Ambassador Hotel, Nelson (Harry Belafonte), unknowingly quotes Lewis Stone’s line about “people coming, going, nothing ever happens” from Grand Hotel (1932), and retired doorman John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) remarks on the source. (Is it permissible to wonder how many of today’s reviewers have ever seen Grand Hotel, or even know that it boasted seven big names of the era and a tapestry of stories that interconnected?)
Regardless of whose formula Bobby does or doesn’t draw on, it has merits of its own that in the final analysis more than balance out questions of originality and how Estevez managed to assemble such a star-studded cast. There’s no denying that he did manage to recruit an impressive array of talent, but it’s equally hard to deny that there’s precious little star-turn ego on display in the film. The biggest names are put on even footing with less well-known actors like Freddie Rodriguez, Jacob Vargas, Mary Jane Winstead, Nick Cannon, Joy Bryant, Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf. In many respects — not in the least because Bobby has much to do with the optimism, idealism and innocence of youth — these younger performers are allowed to dominate the film. Their characters are participants, while the bulk of the older characters are observers. The only big names in the younger cast (exempting Ashton Kutcher’s almost cameo role) are Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood, who play a couple getting married to keep Wood’s character from being sent to Vietnam.
While Bobby has been criticized on the grounds that its multiple stories detract from the overall point, that’s not true, since each story deals with a betrayal or a disillusionment or a death of innocence — all leading to the symbolic death of idealism and hope with the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. An era is ending in Bobby and everything about the film is pointing to this. (The use of the Moody Blues’ “Tuesday Afternoon” on the soundtrack part way through the proceedings suggests it; the inclusion of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” at the end cements it.) Estevez may seem to be wandering around his theme, but he isn’t. By the end of the film there are few unblemished ideals — whether they involve a wife learning her husband is cheating on her, a pair of campaigners inaugurated into the counterculture of drugs, or even the hippie-guru drug dealer getting popped in a sting operation. These develop the theme, and Estevez keeps it in sight on his way to the ultimate moment of despair and disillusion. It’s a pretty impressive accomplishment.
But what is perhaps the most sobering comment of all stems from the fact that Estevez was only 6 years old at the time of Kennedy’s death and certainly couldn’t have processed it then. This means he had to go back to his father’s generation to find a political figure he felt really could have made a difference. Hearing Kennedy’s speeches on the film’s soundtrack and all that has come since make it hard to argue with that judgment. Rated R for language, drug content and a scene of violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke