America’s Sweethearts is the latest slice of pasteurized fast-film product to slide off the Julia Roberts Romantic Comedy assembly line. This is a film so generic it should have been shot in black and yellow; there’s precious little in the way of either Romance or Comedy to enjoy along the way–it’s mostly filler. But rest assured – Julia is her usual perky, winsome and toothy self and she manages to fight through obstacles to eventually get her guy. Sorry if that spoils the fun, but if there were any doubts it wouldn’t be a Julia Roberts Romantic Comedy, now would it?
In this installment of As The Julia Turns, the guy is movie star Eddie Thomas (John Cusack). He and estranged wife Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have made so many films together the public knows them as "GwenAndEddie". But they’re now bitter adversaries, ever since Gwen left Eddie to shack up with a sultry Spanish co-star (Hank Azaria). Separately their film careers have foundered, but there’s one more G&E feature left in the can. But all that’s been seen of the film are the first 15 seconds of the titles, as quirky director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken) is still tinkering with the picture.
To keep the press occupied until Weidmann can deliver a finished product, studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) enlists ace publicist Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal) to make it at least look like G&E are thinking of reconciling. Lee books a resort in the middle of the desert to hold the press junket while he tries to work his magic with the star-crossed couple. Where’s Julia in all this? She’s Kiki, Gwen’s sister and personal assistant. In Lisa Loeb glasses and Pebbles Flintstone hairdo, Julia/Kiki is a dowdy waif who’s recently lost sixty pounds. She’s always been in love with Eddie. He’s always loved her too, but he just doesn’t know it yet. You can bet he eventually will.
Hollywood loves to poke fun at itself, but the humor in the Billy Crystal/Peter Tolan script is either base (lots of crotch jokes) or slick and glib without being very funny–think Neil Simon on a bad day. It tries to show that even movie stars have everyday problems but instead repeatedly displays that there really is very little humanity behind that screen facade and that most film types are shallow, self-centered and insecure–like Gwen, a demanding diva, only drinking water "with electrolytes", charming in public but only partially human when talking to her sister in private.
The main problem with the film is that we’re supposed to care about Gwen and Eddie and the rest of the film folk, but their problems all seem exalted and unworldly. Except for Julia/Kiki in her familiar underdog role (and how odd is it that we’re asked to believe that Julia Roberts is The Ugly Duckling?), everyone else is in a position of favor and privilege. This is a film that peels off the outer layer of glitter to reveal… a core of glitter underneath. It’s hard to be sympathetic to someone just because their latte arrives 10 seconds late. In the end – like most films that try to lampoon Hollywood – the barbs are old and dull and thrown weakly at large and easy targets.
Joe Roth’s direction is particularly arid. Wide parched vistas of monotony separate scrabbly oases of amusement and the payoff for a gag almost never matches the time devoted to its setup. Whatever energy the film has is provided by the secondary characters, who are sadly underused. Walken and Tucci brighten the screen during their brief visits, as does Alan Arkin as a New Age therapist and Seth Green as a hard-charging but naive aide. Hank Azaria’s attempt at a hunky lisping Castilian only comes off as ridiculous. John Cusack stands out among the leads; his delivery is much better than the material. His Eddie Thomas is the only character in the film that even approaches being a believable human being. Crystal is all schtick and smirks.
Good triumphs.Love conquers all.Happily Ever After is attainable.That’s what’s expected from a Julia Roberts Romantic Comedy, and that’s what America’s Sweethearts eventually delivers.Too bad the means don’t justify the ends.
– Bob Aulert