Watching Emilio Estevez’s Bobby gives one a new appreciation (in case any of us had forgotten) for the artistry of the late Robert Altman. Trying to capture the hopeful spirit he felt was lost with the assassination of Presidential aspirant Robert Kennedy at LA’s Ambassador Hotel in 1968, Estevez weaves together the lives of 22 characters working or staying at the hotel that night (none of whom are either Kennedy himself or his assassin, Sirhan Sirhan). Landmark, era-defining films such as Nashville are alluded to in Estevez’s long, unifying, Altmanesque tracking shots. Given the height of genius it’s cribbing from—and the palpable passion the director feels for his subject—Bobby should have been a great film, a thoughtful meditation on an alternate American past (and present) that that assassination might have kiboshed: one without Nixon, race riots, or Iraq. You can see that’s where Estevez wants to go. Unfortunately, his writing and direction are too ham-fisted to translate what he sees in his head (and heart) to the screen.

In his attempt to capture the collective life of an era, Estevez unwisely crowds the film with Hollywood A and B-listers. Not only does his who’s who cast fail to rescue the most leaden dialogue, but the actors actually prove distracting. Just when you’re about to give yourself over to Bobby, in walks another face off the cover of US magazine. Did Estevez really think these folks were suited to their roles—or did he just need their help to get the film made?

Estevez could have included half as many characters and written each one with twice as much subtlety and intelligence. Too many of the narrative threads either tend towards melodrama—the scenes between Laurence Fishburne’s head cook and Freddy Rodriguez’s dishwasher are painfully saccharine—or are too vague (who exactly are Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt’s characters supposed to be?). Only the plotline whereby Lindsay Lohan’s character is marrying Elijah Wood’s draft-age character to save him from Vietnam feels in any way real.

Kennedy’s iimminent death hangs over the events at the hotel in a wonderfully portentous way. But that’s all that keeps this plot moving and the audience engaged. Once Bobby steps through the hotel door (met by Anthony Hopkins’ retired doorman) and the pace begins to quicken, we see what Estevez has been aiming for all along. When gun shots eventually ring out, Estevez accompanies this with a recording of a speech Kennedy delivered after the assassination of Martin Luther King. The speech is eloquent and amazingly powerful, especially when played over top of the mad scramble that follows the shots. Sure it’s manipulative filmmaking, but it’s powerful stuff. Had Estevez hired himself a script editor, forgoing his screenwriting pals, he might have imbued the rest of the film with similar potency.

Skip it and rent some Altman instead.

Bobby is now playing at Canada Square (2190 Yonge St.), the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.), the Paramount (259 Richmond St. W.) and others