Directed by: Joe Roth
Starring: Julia Roberts, John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Crystal, Christopher Walken
I really wanted to like this movie, but the movie itself kept getting in the way. Here, it seemed, was a chance for a comedy that wasn't airheaded or grounded in "shock" humor that's usually more puerile than actually shocking. Here was a dynamite cast working from a premise as solid as any classic "screwball" comedy. It ought to have been Mumm's Cordon Rouge. Instead, it turned out to have more in common with flat ginger ale. And it's not easy to exactly pinpoint the blame, though part of it clearly falls on director Joe Roth. Roth has spent the last 11 years producing and, except for the fact that his Revolution Studios was responsible for The Animal, he should perhaps have remained a producer. His directorial credits prior to his production years are less than overwhelming, with movies like Coupe De Ville and Revenge of the Nerds: Nerds in Paradise (no wonder the press kit manages to omit these credentials). As a director, Roth has no discernible style and fails to inject either the speed or the sense of fun that might have made America's Sweethearts work. You can't really say he ruins the film, though -- only that he does nothing to help it. That brings us to the script. Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan came up with a good -- if not terribly original -- concept: an estranged husband-and-wife screen team (John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones), reunited to promote their latest (and presumably last) movie. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur came up with something like this about 70 years ago called Twentieth Century and the 1934 film version of that is still fresh and funny in a way that America's Sweethearts never gets near. The problem is that Crystal and Tolan have cluttered the story up in too many ways. There are too many characters and too many plot elements, not to mention too much introspection. When Eddie Thomas (Cusack) complains that Gwen Harrison (Zeta-Jones) rated a cottage at the press junket and he only rated a suite, it's pointed out to him by publicist Lee Philips (Billy Crystal) that she has an entourage and asks if he has one. "I'm a paranoid schizophrenic. I'm my own entourage," counters Eddie. It gets a quick laugh, but it over-intellectualizes the whole concept. The reason the outrageous characters of a genuine screwball farce such as Twentieth Century work is because they aren't aware that they are outrageous -- they think they're being rational. As soon as the audience knows the characters themselves realize their behavior is irrational, the fun goes out of it. Then too, the script can't decide if it wants to be a searing satire of Hollywood and the press or a moving romantic comedy. It works better as a satire, because -- try as it may -- the script cannot make Eddie terribly likable and can't make Gwen likable at all. This is partly the fault of the actors -- or rather the casting choices. These are roles that could only garner real sympathy for actors with firmly established sympathetic personalities, which neither star possesses. It's left to Julia Roberts as Kiki, Gwen's much put-upon sister, to attract what sympathy there is. And she does this on exactly that basis: an established sympathetic personality. Problem is she comes across as the sole human being in a cast of caricatures. If the film had had the nerve to stick to the satire -- and the director to make it work -- America's Sweethearts might have been a minor comedy classic instead of the fitfully amusing time-killer it is. Billy Crystal's portrayal of a publicist occasionally scales the heights of ruthless humor (only to have the script decide to humanize him). Alan Arkin comes off better as Eddie's long-haired guru "Wellness Guide." At least he's allowed to be utterly venal. Christopher Walken's lunatic filmmaker, Hal Weidman (a seeming, and somewhat inexplicable, parody of the late Hal Ashby), comes away with the honors in the satire department -- and you have to give some ground to Crystal and Tolan for creating a director so wigged-out that he edits his movie in the Unabomber's old cabin! It's a hit or miss movie with just enough hits to keep you mildly entertained.