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MOVIE REVIEW

Casting about earnestly

Director Estevez gets lost in crowd in 'Bobby'

With the deeply earnest dinner-theater production that calls itself "Bobby," actor-writer-director Emilio Estevez has tried to make a movie in the fashion of the lateRobert Altman . The problem is that he's not Robert Altman. Not to be unkind, but he's not even close. He's made a pretty good remake of "Airport," though.

Yet "Nashville" is very much on the filmmaker's mind, and the movie wants to be an ambitious generational statement and a testament to the loss of American innocence, as well as a means of casting everybody in Estevez' s Treo . Focusing on one day in the life of a Los Angeles hotel -- The Ambassador, where Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated on the night of June 4, 1968 -- "Bobby" is a cry of sociopolitical agony that shoots itself in the foot on a scene-by-scene basis.

Bobby Kennedy doesn't appear in the film, other than in news footage and as a distant, blurry figure during the climactic scenes, but at least half of the characters milling about the Ambassador are obsessed with him. The California Democratic primary is being held this hot summer day and the candidate is neck and neck with Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy volunteers pack into buses in the parking lot, fanning out across the City of Angels. Reverend King is dead, the war in Vietnam lurches on, and Bobby represents the last great hope of Camelot.

Two of the campaign workers, played engagingly by Shia LaBeouf and Brian Geraghty, decide to play hooky and drop acid. The hotel's general manager (William H. Macy) is cheating on his wife (Sharon Stone) with one of the switchboard operators (Heather Graham). A young Mexican busboy (Freddy Rodriguez) has tickets to see Dodgers pitcher Don Drysdale possibly beat the all-time record for shutouts, but the racist kitchen manager (Christian Slater) has everyone working double-shifts. Down in the chapel, a teenage girl (Lindsay Lohan) is marrying a classmate she hardly knows (Elijah Wood) to keep him out of the war.

And so it goes: Estevez probably thinks he's giving us entertainment value with this we-are-the-world casting approach, but while the performances are mostly solid -- Stone in particular is tremendously moving, even subtle -- the strategy backfires. It's impossible to emotionally invest in the characters when there's another Hollywood Square around every corner. Look, there's Anthony Hopkins as the retired doorman! Nick Cannon as a Kennedy campaign worker! Martin Sheen as a hotel visitor and Helen Hunt as his aging, neurotic trophy wife! Laurence Fishburne as the head chef!

At times the movie approaches the heights reserved for true camp: The sight of Demi Moore, as the hotel's Scotch-addled lounge singer, slurring "We're allll whores -- only some of us get paid for it," is enough to wake the ghost of Joan Crawford. The less said about the actress' husband, Ashton Kutcher, as a blissed-out hippie drug dealer, the better. Given the film's subject and how much of his heart Estevez has obviously put into it, you may feel ashamed for occasionally howling into your popcorn. As with a freeway pileup, though, it's hard to look away.

"Bobby" is well-shot and edited; Mark Isham's score evokes the requisite sense of tragedy without losing its cool. (The period pop songs, by contrast, have been chosen for maximum cliche.) On the craft level, the movie's a professional piece of work.

Estevez's script is another matter: ham-handed and TV-movie flat, it states the obvious, then states it again and again and again. "Bobby" gets some of the racial politics right -- the jostling of the Mexicans and blacks in the kitchen for mutual respect and greater power -- but everyone else speaks in platitudes and bald subtext. Discoursing on his grandmother's blueberry cobbler recipe, Fishburne's chef could be speaking for the director when he says "I couldn't get the balance. I was forcing it. I couldn't find the poetry; I couldn't find the light."

"Bobby" isn't poetry but doggerel made with the best of intentions, and if you cherish the Kennedy mythos and pine for the loss of public idealism, maybe you'll fall for it. At the end, after all the shooting, Estevez goes for artistic broke with a montage of '60s news footage scored to -- wait for it -- Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sound of Silence"; we also hear the campaign speech RFK gave earlier in 1968, in which he holds out an intensely moving vision of American reconciliation.

The sequence overreaches and lands straight in the banal, yet the words go straight to your heart. "Bobby" wants us to mourn "the once and future king" and meditate on what might have been, and maybe there's a movie someone should make -- an alternate history of the last 40 years, without Watergate and everything that came after. Estevez treats Bobby as a fallen god and expects we will too. Given the current state of the nation, maybe he's not asking too much.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. His blog is at boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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