”America’s Sweethearts” is the best glossy entertainment contrived in Hollywood in quite a while.
It demonstrates that the Hollywood mainstream can indulge in self-mockery. The screenplay, reuniting the “Analyze This” team of Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan, must have read funny. Director Joe Roth protects its playfulness although he is coming off a 10-year stint in the executive suites of major studios.
“America’s Sweethearts” showcases certain performers about as well as the movie business permits when people are in their prime and enjoying their work. The writers have supplied enviably smart and entertaining material to several cast members. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a dazzling asset as Gwen Harrison, a supremely vain glamour puss. John Cusack confirms his flair for hurting, reeling romantic leads as Gwen’s estranged spouse, Eddie Thomas. The term “America’s Sweethearts,” applied to Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks in the silent-movie era, is revived to salute the status of Gwen and Eddie, loving partners in a half-dozen apocryphal blockbusters of the 1990s.
Billy Crystal takes care of himself nicely as a resourceful publicist named Lee Phillips, who is back after a fleeting retirement to mastermind a press junket designed to hoodwink press and public about the last of the Harrison-Thomas projects, “Time Over Time.” The film had been lingering in seclusion for the better part of a year while Gwen made two flops with her new boyfriend and Eddie nursed his broken heart and injured pride at a New Age sanitarium. Stanley Tucci is splendidly paranoid as a panicky studio boss, David Kingman, who has reason to fear that “Time Over Time” is an $86 million guillotine hanging over his exposed, tingling neck.
A quartet of supporting players also are welcome company: Hank Azaria as Hector, the Latin lover who alienated Gwen’s affections; Alan Arkin as Eddie’s “wellness guide,” only too happy to part with his famous client after months of therapy; Christopher Walken as a devious director, die-hard hippie Hal Weidmann; and Steve Pink as an intrusive limo driver. Only Mr. Azaria’s character, who enters with a wonderfully ridiculous accent, tends to outlive his absurd usefulness. So where does this leave the performer with top billing, Academy Award winner Julia Roberts? Oddly enough, with the weakest role among the principal players.
Miss Roberts portrays Gwen’s loyal, long-suffering sister Kiki, who has functioned as an indispensable girl Friday or all-around enabler through the Harrison career. The press junket, which depends on Kiki’s and Lee’s seasoned manipulative skills to camouflage the finality of the marital split, is meant to conclude with the Cinderella character winning her tarnished Prince Charming. In other words, Kiki lands Eddie.
Miss Roberts had first refusal on the role of either sibling. Unfortunately, Kiki’s virtues haven’t been elaborated adequately or tailored to Miss Roberts’ personality in an appealing way.
Only one scene provides a clear-cut comic highlight for Kiki: a conversation with Lee over a monster breakfast at the junket hotel-casino, an amusingly isolated and picturesque Hyatt Regency in Henderson, Nev. Having lost a reputed 60 pounds in a year, Kiki feels blue enough to go off the wagon at this juncture. While stuffing her face with eggs and pancakes, Miss Roberts does admirably malicious imitations of the selfish sister.
As it is, she seems a good sport for looking alternately gaunt and dumpy (in tubby prosthetics for flashbacks) while Miss Zeta-Jones radiates outrageous beauty.
The plot wobbles down the stretch while trying to persuade us that “Time Over Time” might be a lucky fiasco in the “Springtime for Hitler” mold. Unlikely. Nevertheless, “America’s Sweethearts” contains more choice foolishness than one might expect.