Screenplay : Billy Crystal & Peter Tolan
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Julia Roberts (Kiki), Billy Crystal (Lee), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Gwen Harrison), John Cusack (Eddie Thomas), Hank Azaria (Hector), Stanley Tucci (Kingman), Christopher Walken (Hal Weidmann), Seth Green (Danny)
In America's Sweethearts, John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones are the "sweethearts" of the title, Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison, two fictional movie stars who have recently broken up after several years of marriage and eight movies together, six of which made more than $100 million at the box office.
This is only the beginning of the troubles for Lee (Billy Crystal), a beleaguered publicist whose job it is to promote Eddie and Gwen's final movie together, Time Over Time, which is a romance about time travel (it is just as hokey and unrealistic a movie concept as all of Eddie and Gwen's other movies, many of which we see clips of in an opening segment that uses a demo promotional reel to explain their history together).
Problem piles on top of problem: Eddie, after having had an emotional breakdown following Gwen's dumping him, is trying to get himself back together at a "resort" with a kooky "wellness guide" played in an amusing cameo by Alan Arkin. Gwen, on the other hand, has taken up with a self-absorbed lisping Spaniard named Hector (Hank Azaria). And, worst of all, Time Over Time's egomaniacal auteur director, Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken), has disappeared with the film and is editing it in the Unabomber's shack, which he purchased from the government and has set up in his backyard.
All of this is set-up for the movie's main premise, an elaborate press junket engineered by Lee for the movie that may not exist. Using every trick up his sleeve, he tries to keep the legions of journalists and reviewers distracted so they won't realize that there's no movie to be seen. Mostly, this involves trying to create the illusion that Eddie and Gwen are getting back together, even though Eddie is obviously emotionally unstable and Gwen is too obsessed with herself to carry on a relationship with anyone other than someone like Hector, who is equally self-absorbed.
This makes it sound like America's Sweethearts is an insider movie satire ala The Player (1992), and while the potential is certainly there for something much harsher, screenwriters Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan take a different route and allow it to play out as a tepid update of the screwball comedy formula with vaguely satiric overtones. The romance primarily involves Kiki (Julia Roberts), Gwen's harried sister and personal assistant who has put her entire life on hold in order to help her sister maintain fame and glamour. Of course, since Kiki is played by Julia Roberts, it's impossible not to see that she's a glowing movie star herself trapped in a forced supporting role. It's inevitable that Kiki will eventually outshine Gwen because Kiki is true to herself and decent in addition to being beautiful.
America's Sweethearts is the first film to come out of Revolution Studios, founded by former Disney executive Joe Roth, who also decided to direct the movie. Roth's previous directorial efforts, including Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987) and the little-seen Coup de Ville (1990), don't exactly inspire confidence, even though he has in America's Sweetheartsa high-concept romantic comedy with incredible marquee value.
Yet, Roth has no touch and he doesn't deal very well with the movie's competing inner tensions of wanting to please the audience with feel-good screwball romance while simultaneously satirizing an industry that is already a satire of itself. Perhaps he's too deeply inside the material to realize that the problems his characters are facing seem trite and shallow because they are trite and shallow. Everyone overreacts to everything, so there's no distinction between major crises and minor irritants. This could be overcome if the characters were more interesting and believable, but they're not; they fall into equally recognizable molds and never move outside of them. Roberts remains the golden girl who just hasn't been given a chance to shine yet; Cusack plays up the lovesick sensitive-guy routine to the edge of pathos; Zeta-Jones is the cold-hearted narcissist; and so on.
This is not to say that the movie doesn't have its enjoyable moments. Crystal plays his well-worked schtick in convincing fashion as Lee--he's the only believable character in the whole movie because he's the only one who isn't constantly posturing. Hank Azaria overplays his caricatured Latin lover role, but he still has some funny scenes. Christopher Walken, on the other hand, nails the jokey role of the renegade auteur, especially in the climax when he finally delivers the movie and it doesn't turn out to be what anyone had expected (even though this plot development is painfully contrived to serve the necessary machinations of the plot, Walken almost makes it work).
The ultimate problem with America's Sweethearts is that it simply doesn't ring true. Billy Crystal first came up with the idea for the movie after the success of When Harry Met Sally... (1989), which is one of the best examples of a romantic comedy that works because we can believe in it. Harry and Sally felt like real characters. Kiki and Gwen and Eddie and just about anyone else in America's Sweethearts do not, and the movie ends up feeling like a bunch of Hollywood megastars pretending to be Hollywood megastars as they think "the common folk" would imagine them.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick