"America's Sweethearts" has an intriguing premise and a great cast, but
it isn't nearly as edgy or funny as it should be. Almost all the
problems with the project can be traced back to co-script writer Billy
Crystal, who shows the same lack of discipline with the screenplay that
he typically displays while co-hosting "Comic Relief" charity shows with
Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg (two other paragons of
Crystal ignores a simple, but crucial, rule: For a screwball comedy to
work, the characters must be placed into a rigid social setting, because
only in that context will their unorthodox antics be humorous.
"America's Sweethearts" takes place at a press junket, where decorum
must be maintained in front of the reporters. It's a promising set-up,
but the screenplay quickly blows off the rules, thus dissipating the
tension of the situation. By the end of the film, all the lead
performers participate in a huge fight with a room full of journalists
looking on, but their outbursts are only mildly amusing because the
structure has been destroyed.
John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones play Eddie Thomas and Gwen
Harrison, a beloved acting duo whose marriage hit the skids when Gwen
began seeing Hector (Hank Azaria), a Spanish actor with an ego almost as
pronounced as his lisp. Of the last nine films Eddie and Gwen made
together, six crossed the $100 million mark, but the prospects for their
final effort, a space opus titled "Time Over Time," are far from rosy.
While Eddie has spent many months in a New Age rest clinic fretting over
the breakup, Gwen's solo films have tanked. To make matter worse, the
director of the movie (Christopher Walken), a "visionary" who purchased
the Unabomber's cabin and had it moved to his backyard, is withholding
the film from the studio, insisting that the first screening be held at
Desperate to win over the press, the studio elects to hire Lee (Billy
Crystal), a recently fired publicist, to salvage the situation. Lee
hopes to turn lemons into lemonade by convincing Eddie and Gwen to
pretend to be on the road to reconciliation. He enlists the help of Kiki
(Julia Roberts), Gwen's sister, personal assistant and whipping girl.
What Lee doesn't know is that Kiki is in love with Eddie, a fact that
could temper her effectiveness.
Press junkets are a haven for control freaks. Studios fly journalists in
from around the world and put them up in a plush hotel, with food and
drink always at hand. Generally, on the evening of their arrival,
writers are bussed to see the featured film, then ferreted straight back
to the hotel. The next day, writers go to the studio suites and assemble
in groups of five or six for roundtable interviews. Every 30 minutes or
so, a producer, director, writer or actor is brought into the room for a
few minutes of questions, with a publicist hovering in the corner to
keep an eye on things. The atmosphere is one of cordial oppression –
writers are free to ask what they want, but understand that if the
studio dislikes a question, they may not be invited to future junkets.
Representatives from TV stations face even more restrictions. They get
roughly five minutes to interview each member of the cast and crew, with
the studio filming the exchanges. The "reporters" are notorious for
tossing softball questions as they suck up to the stars, but to play it
safe, the studios stand ready to erase the tapes if anything unpleasant
Placing two spoiled actors in a setting where image is everything is
inspired, but the screenplay undermines the conceit. The junket is moved
from the handsome, but highly confining, Four Seasons Hotel to a plush
resort near Las Vegas. For most of the film, the movie stars run around
the sprawling grounds, completely safe from the eyes of the press. When
they do deal with journalists, the "it is imperative that you be on your
best behavior in front of the reporters" premise is de-clawed. Gwen and
Eddie insult each other while the TV cameras roll, they scream at each
other in a restaurant filled with the media and, at the screening of the
movie, everyone connected with the film goes nuts, all without any
Lee certainly isn't bothered by any of the infantile outbursts; in fact,
he makes arrangements for footage of even more inappropriate behavior to
be delivered to the tabloids. Is the studio angry about his handling of
the combative actors? Hell no – they feel Lee is a genius for garnering
so much publicity for the movie.
All of which underscores how Billy Crystal and co-writer Peter Tolan
screwed up their own premise: The comedy in "America's Sweethearts" is
based on barely-in-control people trying to contain themselves in the
presence of reporters, except that it doesn't matter because any
publicity is good publicity. And thus the very set-up for the film
implodes, leaving smoke and dust in place of laughter.
So what about the cast? Julia Roberts, at her best playing the underdog,
is utterly charming here, although I could have lived without flashbacks
that exist solely as an excuse to show her in a fat suit (and not a very
convincing one, by the way). Catherine Zeta-Jones makes a believable
brat and John Cusack fleshes out his obsessed character enough to make
him vaguely sympathetic. By casting himself as the publicist, Billy
Crystal allows himself to do roughly the same thing he does on "Comic
Relief"- stay on the sidelines of the action while tossing off cornball
jokes and snarky remarks.
In supporting roles, Hank Azaria wears out his welcome fast with broad
gestures and a Spanish accent that Speedy Gonzales would have deemed
"too broad." Seth Green is amusing as a toadie, Stanley Tucci is very
good as a ruthless studio head and Christopher Walken plays the
eccentric director with suitable flair, though he has little to work
Come to think of it, "little to work with" is the operative phrase for
this movie. As a Hollywood satire, "America's Sweethearts" is toothless.
As a romance, it is at best a minor pleasure. Such a good cast, such a
waste of their efforts. Had it not been taken long ago, a better title
for the film would have been "Much Ado about Nothing."
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott