Dir/scr: Emilio Estevez. US.2006. 119mins.

Actor-director Emilio Estevez makes a convincing return to featuredirection with Bobby, an all-starchoral drama set in Los Angeles' Hotel Ambassador on the day Democraticcandidate Robert Kennedy was assassinated there. True, it is not one of those auteurist multi- strand films like Magnolia that provokes and challenges its audience; rather it'sbetter thought of as a hipper, more politicised take on the Grand Hotel genre. But the film'spotentially slight stories, which follow 22 fictional guests and staff stayingor working in the Ambassador on June 4, 1968, are neatly glued together andgiven depth, by the impending tragedy.

Bobby's quiet resonance, which takes a while to build, also comes through theplot strands' thematic links (which spotlight, for example, the changing natureof male-female relationships), and by the way they act as a sign-of-the-timesbarometer to an America that many then believed to be on the verge ofrevolution.

Commercially, this is a smartand tasty product, with its universally excellent all-star ensemble cast (astrong contender for those awards, like the Golden Globes, where multi-actorprizes are allowed), its stirring nostalgia for a lost era of ideal-fuelledpolitics and its canny mix of emotional drama, liberal message, and gentlecomedy.

It should certainly strikea real chord in the US (it enjoys an LA/NY release on Nov 17 after playingToronto), where the Kennedy brand is still high-profile; internationally, itwill be the star names that pull in the punters. Overseas marketing campaignswould do well to stress that this is not a worthy biopic about the slightlyless famous member of America's most famous family, but an ensemble drama thatcaptures that era.

Bobby was presented in Venice as a work in progress, but at the pressconference Estevez confirmed that only the final credits and a theme songperformed by Aretha Franklin still needed to be added, also quipping that "anyfilm you make with Harvey Weinstein is going to be a work in progress". Therunning time given above is therefore likely to be extended by another fiveminutes - though it would be better to bring the film in under two hours bytightening up some of the limper light-relief scenes, like the LSD-tripsubplot, or the folksy chats over a game of chess in the hotel lobby betweentwo retired hotel porters, John Casey (Anthony Hopkins) and Nelson (HarryBelafonte).

A brief full-screencaption sets the timelock: it's June 4,1968, voting day in the California primaries for theDemocratic presidential candidate. Frontrunner Robert Kennedy has alreadybooked the ballroom of one of LA's most venerable luxury hotels, theAmbassador, for that evening's victory party and press conference.

Hotel manager Paul Ebbers (William H Macy) is helping to get things ready,though he takes time out to pursue his affair with pretty switchboard operatorAngela (Heather Graham), while his wife Miriam (Sharon Stone) paints nails,cuts hair and soothes troubled souls in the hotel's beauty parlour - includingthat of Diane (Lindsay Lohan), a bride-to-be who isgetting married to her young college friend William (Elijah Wood) to save himfrom being sent to Vietnam.

Other denizens of theAmbassador include drink-sodden chanteuse Virginia Fallon (DemiMoore) and her long-suffering, henpecked husband Tim (played by the director);good-hearted Latino kitchen boy Jose (Freddy Rodriguez) and his older mentor,the wise sous-chef Edward (Laurence Fishburne); Jack Stevens (Martin Sheen), a depressed olderbusinessman from the East Coast who has brought his much younger, fashion-obsessedwife Samantha (Helen Hunt) to LA on a second honeymoon; and two youngDemocratic party campaigners (Brian Gerarghty and Shia Lebeouf) who embark on theirfirst LSD trip when they should be out hustling for votes.

The baton is passed fromstory to story with reasonable grace, while Michael Barrett's photography usesthe widescreen format interestingly against type to engender a sense ofclaustrophobia: the frame becomes the hotel itself, a pressure-cooker microcosmof US society in the year The Graduatewas in cinemas, Martin Luther King was assassinated and songs like California Dreaming (which features onthe soundtrack, along with a handful of other iconic period anthems) were inthe charts.

What Estevez lacks invisual flair as a director (if anything, it's his well-honed script that mayget an Oscar nod), he makes up for in the performances he coaxes from hisactors. Demi Moore and Sharon Stone stand out:Moore's Fallon is not a stage drunk but a conflicted, arrogant, insecure womanwho drinks so she doesn't have to face herself, while Stone gives Miriam anemotional depth that can only have been hinted at in the script.

No actor plays RobertKennedy: his election campaign and new-found commitment to America'sdispossessed is shown through newsreel footage, which is spliced seamlesslyinto the action, particularly in the dramatic final assassination sequence.

The chaos of the moment isconveyed by jerky handheld camera movement, while the loss to the nation isbrought home by the original campaign speech that plays out over these scenesof panic and desperation, in which Kennedy talks about the violence, the incomegap, and the ethnic divisions that plagued his country. Few audiences willresist the obvious hint that Kennedy's words apply equally well to the USA in 2006.

Production companies/backers
The Weinstein Company
Bold Films

International sales
The Weinstein Company

US distribution
MGM Studios

Executive producers
Gary Michael Walters
Dan Grodnik
Anthony Hopkins

Michael Litvak
Edward Bass
Holly Wiersma

Michael Barrett

Production design
Patti Podesta

Richard Chew

Mark Isham

Main cast
Harry Belafonte
Joy Bryant
Nick Cannon
Emilio Estevez
Laurence Fishburne
Brian Geraghty
Heather Graham
Anthony Hopkins
Helen Hunt
Joshua Jackson
Ashton Kutcher
Shia LaBeouf
Lindsay Lohan
William H Macy
Svetlana Metkina
Demi Moore
Freddy Rodriguez
Martin Sheen
Christian Slater
Sharon Stone
Jacob Vargas
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Elijah Wood