2006 TIFF Update #11: "Regrets, I've Had a Few..."

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Sunday, September 17, 2006

The box office is closed. The press center is just another empty room. Hotel rooms are available and rates have gone down. The dozen venues that screened festival films have gone back to normal operation. Downtown Toronto is a little less crowded. Gone are the throngs that haunted Bloor and Bay, waiting to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt or Sean Penn. The stars have flown the coop, taking the paparazzi with them. Festival organizers are about to get the first good night's sleep they have experienced in a month before waking up tomorrow and starting to prepare for the 2007 festival. There's something melancholy about the end of a film festival. It's like summer's end on Labor Day or the exit of the holiday season with New Year's Day.

Before making some closing comments about the festival, there's one last film to discuss. It's Emilio Estevez' Bobby. The fact that it occupied a gala slot late in the festival was a warning sign - films perceived as winners get shown during the festival's first weekend. Also, the director's resume (Wisdom, Men at Work) doesn't inspire confidence. However, approaching the movie with a measure of trepidation didn't fireproof me from discouragement. Even with low expectations, Bobby still managed to disappoint.

June 4, 1968 was both the best of times and the worst of times for 42-year old Bobby Kennedy. This was the day when the New York Senator captured the California Democratic primary and appeared to be on the fast track to facing off against Richard Nixon in the November election (a contest he would likely have won). It's also the day when Sirhan Sirhan, a 24-year old Palestinean, shot him. He died 26 hours later, ending considerations of a second Camelot and bringing into existence mumblings of a so-called "Kennedy Curse."

Bobby is the story of myriad fictional characters in and around Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel (RFK's campaign headquarters and the place where he was shot) during the fateful day. Kennedy, as it turns out, is only a secondary character in the movie - not important enough for an actor to portray him (archival footage of the real RFK is used). His death, coupled with a stirring voiceover, provides a poignant ending, but its resonance is limited because Kennedy is an icon in Bobby, not a character.

In terms of structure and quality of writing, the movie feels like an Irwin Allen film or an episode of The Love Boat. There are about ten subplots featuring recognizable actors. These "guest stars" interact with each other in largely perfunctory ways, passing time until we get to the big climax. The mini-stories are not compelling - none has enough time to build a head of steam, and none of the characters experience noticeable development. The unrelenting tedium of spending 90 minutes with these individuals is broken only when RFK takes the podium to declare victory.

Watching Bobby is a lot like playing "spot a star." Anthony Hopkins is a former doorman who haunts the Ambassador looking forward to his regular chess game with Harry Belafonte. Demi Moore is a drunk singer whose marriage to Emilio Estevez is on the rocks. Manacurist Sharon Stone is married to hotel manager William H. Macy, who is having an affair with switchboard operator Heather Graham. Macy has just fired underling Christian Slater for anti-Hispanic attitudes. Helen Hunt, the wife of Martin Sheen, goes shoe shopping because she left her black shoes at home. Lindsay Lohan is getting married to childhood friend Elijah Wood to keep him from being posted to Vietnam. Ashton Kutcher is a dope dealer who introduces a couple Kennedy campaign workers to LSD. Freddy Rodriguez, a Dodgers fan anticipating Don Drysdale's sixth consecutive shutout, is annoyed that he has to work a double-shift as a dishwasher and can't go to the game. Laurence Fishburne, the Ambassador's chef, buys the tickets from him.

The film is filled to overflowing with these inconsequential stories, causing Bobby to drag for what seems like a lot longer than its 112-minute running time. The ending, in which everything is supposed to come together in a tragic hail of gunfire, has minimal emotional impact even though seemingly one-third of the big-name stars get plugged along with the presidential candidate. In the end, the only one we care about having been shot is Kennedy. No one else matters.

It's not hard to understand how Estevez could attract this kind of high-profile cast. He and his family are among the liberal elite in Hollywood, and the subject matter is enough to entice anyone who believes that the sorry state of today's government can be traced to the shots fired by Sirhan Sirhan that night. The resulting finished project is a series of skits performed by famous people doing a favor for a friend, and it works about as well as one might expect from such an endeavor. High-profile killings can provide fertile material for motion pictures, whether they're fact-based accounts or include wild speculation. In this case, however, the fertilizer is spread improperly, resulting in a ponderous motion picture that evidences no growth and smells like manure.

The festival's offical awards were handed out last night, so now it's time to hand out my own personal citations. Sorry to the winners, but I don't have any statues or prizes, even cheesy ones, to present. Basking in the warm glory of victory will have to be enough.

Best Feature Film: Time, Kim Ki-Duk
Best Feature Film, Runner Up: Babel, Alejando Gonzalez Inarritu
Best Actor: Peter O'Toole, Venus
Best Supporting Actor: Tom Wilkinson, The Last Kiss
Best Actress: Carice von Houten, Black Book
Best Supporting Actress: Maggie Gyllenhaal, Stranger than Fiction
Worst Feature Film: The Pleasure of Your Company, Michael Ian Black [Not reviewed]
Most Unwarranted Hype: Death of a President, Gabriel Range

In retrospect, I have a few regets about choices made - films seen and others missed. I would have liked to have caught Patrice LeConte's latest, My Best Friend. I somehow missed both showings of Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley. I heard nice things about The Dog Problem. I wish I hadn't wasted 2 1/2 hours on Death of a President (One hour waiting, 90 minutes in the theater). All things considered, however, there are fewer regrets this year than there have been in many past years. That's a good thing.

As I have frequently stated, it's impossible for one person to make a fair determination about how one year's festival stacks up against those presented in other years. The most diligent critic can absorb only 15% of what the festival has to offer, and even non-statisticians will tell you that's not a large enough sample size. Nevertheless, on a personal level, this is the most satisfying week I have spent in Toronto in several years. Maybe I got lucky and picked better this year, or maybe it really was a better festival. Whatever the case, I leave Toronto content that of the 33 festival films I saw, all but a handful were worth the time and energy invested in seeing and (in many cases) writing about them.

Au revior, Toronto, until September 6, 2007 (hopefully).

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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