America's Sweethearts (2001)

D: Joe Roth
S: John Cusack, Julia Roberts

Ace studio publicist Billy Crystal is asked to take charge of a risky press junket. The director, Christopher Walken, is withholding the film until the last minute, and the stars, John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones, have ended their long-term off-screen relationship, much to the disappointment of their fans. He is in a rest home learning spiritual healing under the cryptic tutelage of guru Alan Arkin. She is shacked up with Latin lover Harry Shearer. Can Crystal pull it all together, especially with the help of Jones' put-upon assistant and sister Julia Roberts? What about the torch Roberts carries for Cusack? How will this weekend retreat work out for everyone, and will the movie meet up to the expectations generated by the off-screen shenanigans?

Co-writer, co-producer, and co-star Crystal clearly had high hopes for America's Sweethearts. It has some good one-liners, a great cast, and a premise which might, just might, have been an effective mixture of classic romantic comedy and insider satire. Unfortunately, it is neither. In spite of the evident star power, the script is poor. The characters are uniformly badly drawn, the plot is too flabby, and it never gets the balance of elements right. It is difficult to stand outside the Hollywood machine and yet stay within its boundaries. This film tries to have it both ways but ends up lost in the doldrums. The 'insider' humour is toothless and the attempts at romantic drama and comedy are contrived. On one hand it attempts to knock the system and point out its hypocrisies, on the other it expects us to accept its mushy heart and flimsy characters at face value. It can not and does not work.

There are more basic problems. The script itself feels like it needed more development and certainly more editing. It throws in a large number of repetitive scenes, few enough of which advance the comedy or drama. It has very little to say about Hollywood that isn't obvious in seconds and the romantic story is too predictable and bland to merit the amount of time devoted to it. Director Joe Roth adds little. The film seems to rely on the presence of its stars and the few good gags scattered throughout. But even here there is an oscillation between classic romantic misunderstandings, chaotic farce, and even a moment of Farrelly Brothers-type physical humour which doesn't work at all. It is a wonder that so muddled a story made it all the way to production, but we would have to presume that once enough star names were attached, no one stopped to read it anymore.

Another major problem is that in spite of good performances in the roles, neither Cusack nor Jones are particularly sympathetic characters. Jones (Traffic), granted, is not meant to be sympathetic. On the contrary, she plays a hyper-egocentric movie goddess of a kind we have seen many times before in this kind of film. We are supposed to hate her, or at least see her as a self-referential poke in the eye at Hollywood's inflated sense of its own importance. She does it well, and she looks gorgeous, but it is a tiresome character which quickly makes its point and then refuses to leave well enough alone.

Cusack (High Fidelity) does a variant on his usual downtrodden quasi-outsider. The character is intended to be dishevelled and washed-out, but watching the actor is a bit of a chore after a while. In fact he ultimately seems as self-absorbed and uninteresting as his on-screen arch-rival, which was not quite what was intended. If he was meant to be another nail in the coffin of the world being criticised, then he should have been entirely unlikable too. If he was hoped to be the sympathetic romantic interest (and he is), then he needed to be a bit more actively likable. As the 'human' centre of the drama, he lacks human warmth. There seems to be little enough charisma in the man to explain why he's a major star in the first place, and his post-breakdown persona again sounds a single note which is played over and over again.

Roberts (Erin Brockovich), cast as the romantic interest, is also good within the limits of the role, but her character is also underdeveloped. The fact that Cusack's character is so unsympathetic also leaves too much suspension of disbelief to accept her interest in him, especially given that we are expected to believe she has arrived at the climax of a campaign of self-improvement (linked, insultingly, to weight alone: she still works for her sister after all). Roberts continues to prove capable of winning audiences since her comeback with My Best Friend's Wedding, but this is second-league characterisation which now seems beneath her.

The central trio of relationships are therefore too far off the mark to hold the film steady, leaving the weight of the actors' personalities to carry it. They do, but only so far. The script seems aware of this and so provides an array of supporting characters to bolster them. Crystal (Analyze This) is likable enough, but again the script tries to play both ends against the middle. He is shown to be a lovable rogue, capable of manipulating his friends' lives to his own advantage even though he cares. Scenes of him scheming to have photographers present a key moments and trying to milk the publicity machine for all it is worth are kind of fun, but they are not nearly nasty enough to do more than nudge the audience in the ribs. Crystal himself seems unable to help but come across as a well-meaning guy, and the result is silly farce instead of incisive satire. If this character had been written with a little more malice and the others moved more into the background, it could have worked. The characterisation lacks even the edge of pathos which Steve Martin managed to inject into his would-be insider in Bowfinger, leaving the film with no road to tread but the middle ground. Shearer, meanwhile, is wildly over the top as Jones' Spanish lover. His exaggerated lisp and comic posturing is all very amusing, but seems to come from another film entirely. Arkin and Walken are funny in small doses and luckily appear only in small roles.

Overall, America's Sweethearts is not as painful as you might expect given the timbre of this review, but it is pretty weak. There are a few laughs in there and it does have a splendid cast of talented comic actors, but that is just not enough to make it worth seeing. Video and TV fodder of the future, and then only for fans of romantic comedy: the veneer of satire proves less than a mask.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.