As a movie critic aspiring to be anything but a puppet to the film industry, “America’s Sweethearts” is, at its heart, a blistering, offensive assault on all media-types. An inflicting attack on a naíve press who would presumably eat their children for breakfast if it made a good story, “America’s Sweethearts” takes every opportunity to twist the dagger that it stabs in the back of the very people who help put food on their tables. Any self-respecting critic with even a hint of vengeance in his blood will pan this movie until it bleeds and its creators issue an apology.
As a movie fan, an appreciator of clever and original ideas, and a non-critic, “America’s Sweethearts” is a guilty pleasure: simple and straightforward at most times, always drawing attention to its originality and timeliness, but still never attaining greatness. In a year that has already seen the demise of Tom and Nicole; Heath and Heather; Meg and Dennis; Meg and Russell; and now–ironically enough–Julia and Benjamin, “America’s Sweethearts”‘ greatest asset may be its relevance.
Possibly even more ironic (or is it really?) is Roberts’ appearance on David Letterman’s late night talk show recently. While her billing was played off as a visit to promote this very film, Roberts quickly engaged in full-blown damage control mode, ensuring her adoring followers that the split was just as hard on her, that she still loves the poor chump and that they’ll both be okay. Everything she could do to save her graceful, Princess Never-do-wrong image. Most importantly, she stresses that there is no beef between the two — Meg Ryan’s biggest mistake in her breakup with Dennis Quaid. This type of media manipulation — the kind that saves careers and breaks box office banks — is what “America’s Sweethearts” is all about more than any love story.
In the screen version, Hollywood heavyweights John Cusack (“High Fidelity”) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Traffic”) star as the Hollywood heavyweight tag-team of Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison, an on-and-off-screen couple that America has embraced with an unwavering passion–that is, until they split. More accurately, Gwen splits, leaving Eddie to crumble at a hokey superstar mental wellness center with his deceivingly clever spiritual leader, played wonderfully by Allan Arkin (“Jakob the Liar”). Meanwhile, Gwen shacks up with a macho Antonio Banderas-wannabe, played by Hank Azaria (“Mystery Men”) with a poor lisp. Funny, I seem to remember the real Banderas breaking up super-couple Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson not so long ago.
Once Eddie and Gwen part ways, each begins to suffer the perils of a Hollywood breakup. Gwen’s movies flounder at the box office as America blames her for smashing up their perfect little couple, a fate reminiscent of the recent failures of sweetheart-turned-scapegoat Meg Ryan. On the other hand, Eddie goes through classic Dennis Quaid-style denial/withdrawal, breaking up Gwen’s dates and falling into complete and utter depression.
Lost in the mix is Gwen’s girl-next-door-cute sister, Kiki (Julia Roberts, “The Mexican”), a cross-breed of Gwen’s stunning body and the nanny from “The Brady Bunch.” Always doing Gwen’s dirty work (whether it be scrambling her eggs or arranging late-night liaisons with Eddie), it is more than obvious that we’ve joined Kiki on the brink of explosion.
Adding yet one more character — albeit one far too many — Billy Crystal (“Analyze This”) enters as Lee, the PR agent who is supposed to make it look like Eddie and Gwen are still together because their newest movie isn’t quite ready for its press junket and the studio needs a distraction. Actually, fictional director Hal Wideman is holding it hostage.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of the press junket, “America’s Sweethearts” serves as a jolting introduction to the underworld of the film and journalism industries. At these studio-funded weekend excursions, media-types from around the world are shacked up in high-class joints (at least better than we’re accustomed to), wined and dined, and treated to a screening of the studio’s newest picture or pictures. Interviews with the film’s stars, director or producer follow, allowing the media to generate positive reviews and feedback to the outside world. If this lavish treatment is not enough to guilt a reviewer into seeing the finer points of said movie, studios will not hesitate in taking a more direct approach at controlling publicity. At a recent press junket, I was actually told that I could not write about their movie — after I verbally lambasted it — because “the version I had seen was only 95% finished.”
With Lee working his PR magic, it appears Gwen and Eddie might actually be an item again, the media slowly forget about the movie they have been gathered to view and all seems well in La La land. Enter Kiki, fresh off a diet that scraped sixty pounds off her pudgy frame. With Eddie contemplating love, hate and suicide, Kiki provides everything he wants in Gwen that Gwen lacks, and a predictable love triangle is formed. The longer this movie drags on, and it does drag on for quite a while, the less original and more typical it exposes itself as being.
Chock-full of scathing caricatures of the press and vicious one-liners attacking the media’s collective morality and ability to be manipulated, “America’s Sweethearts” is simply too fierce to be taken as the light-hearted comedy it has been promoted as. Julia Roberts, John Cusack and Billy Crytsal are made for lighter fare. Crystal’s “Mr. Saturday Night” is about as dark as the bunch will ever get while still being taken seriously. “America’s Sweethearts” has been marketed towards a light summer audience that can’t handle its bitter intentions. As for those who can, they’re not the type to bother going to see what is essentially a Julia Roberts movie in the first place.