Thursday, July 19, 2001
There are few things more frustrating than watching a movie that could have been great. If it was a bad idea to begin with, it's easy to dismiss, but if there are hints of potential in an otherwise mediocre film, it's impossible not to wonder what might have been.
Such is the case with "America's Sweethearts," a movie that tries to be both romantic comedy and Hollywood satire, botching each in the process. It has all the elements in place ï¿½ big stars, a love triangle, jabs at showbiz silliness ï¿½ but it's too relentlessly middle-of-the-road to be anything but a bore.
At least the plot is too convoluted to be dull by itself. Married movie stars Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have split up after completion of their ninth film together, and the ensuing year-and-a-half hasn't been kind to either of them. Gwen's career is tanking, and Eddie is at a mental health "retreat" still pining for her, even though she's moved on to a ridiculous Latin lover (Hank Azaria).
The two are brought back together by Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal), a studio publicist in desperate straits ï¿½ the print of Gwen and Eddie's last film is being held hostage by its eccentric director (Christopher Walken), and Lee needs the two stars to show up at a press junket and distract reporters, hoping no one will notice that the film is missing. He enlists the help of Gwen's sister and personal assistant, Kiki (Julia Roberts), an exhausted doormat with a secret attraction to Eddie. Of course, nothing goes as planned and they all get their just desserts, one way or another.
Everyone involved in "America's Sweethearts" seems to be going through the motions, with the exception of Zeta-Jones, who is quite funny as the spoiled, narcissistic Gwen. Roberts is at her best when she can be uninhibited and a little off-kilter, but this movie keeps her subdued almost until the end. She is simply not a good choice to play someone who fades into the background.
Cusack gets in a few moments of frazzled lunacy, most notably in a sequence where he and Zeta-Jones suffer through a day of inane TV interviews, but his considerable acting talent is otherwise completely wasted.
Even worse, these actors have absolutely no chemistry together. Roberts and Zeta-Jones don't seem to be from the same planet, let alone the same family, and there are no romantic sparks between either of them and Cusack. The supporting cast isn't much more exciting, although Stanley Tucci and Seth Green get a few laughs as a heartless studio boss and dorky underling, respectively.
Crystal, who co-wrote the script with Peter Tolan ("Analyze This"), can barely muster his usual schtick, Walken is hardly in the film at all and Azaria just does an embarrassing macho version of his character from "The Birdcage." At times, each of the actors seems to be in his or her own little movie, completely unconnected to the rest.
Crystal, Tolan and director Joe Roth (a former Disney honcho) certainly know enough about show business to skewer it effectively, but they settle for lame, easy jokes instead, only occasionally providing anything with bite. (The scene where Walken finally screens his "masterpiece" typifies what this film really needs.) Everyone already knows that movie stars are pampered, assistants are overworked, publicists lie and the press eats it all up ï¿½ simply pointing out these obvious facts isn't likely to leave people awestruck.
That's really all the makers of "America's Sweethearts" do, though. In fact, they've created the very thing they spend most of the movie pretending to ridicule: a shallow Hollywood artifice that insults the audience's intelligence and considers itself brilliant for doing so.