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With: Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, Hank Azaria, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Walken, Alan Arkin, Seth Green
Written by: Billy Crystal, Peter Tolan
Directed by: Joe Roth
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, some crude and sexual humor
Running Time: 102
Date: 07/17/2001

America's Sweethearts (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Celebrities Skinned

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

America's Sweethearts is actually a romantic comedy wrapped up in an ensemble piece. The ensemble piece works well; the romantic comedy, not so well.

John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones co-star as Eddie and Gwen, the title sweethearts, a Fred-and-Ginger, Ken-and-Em-type couple that makes movies together (with unlikely titles like Requiem for an Outfielder) and lives a blissful married life offscreen.

Until their recent breakup, that is. The maniacal, demanding, and selfish Gwen begins a fling with a half-wit Spaniard named Hector (Hank Azaria), sending Eddie into a tailspin of despair and destruction. Publicist Lee (Billy Crystal) is in charge of rescuing Eddie from his spiritual mountaintop retreat and getting the couple temporarily back together again -- just long enough for a press junket promoting a new sci-fi flick called Time Over Time.

But no one has seen this stinker yet, not even the studio brass (Stanley Tucci), because reclusive genius director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken) wants the press to see it first and retains control of the only print.

Who cares about any of that when America's real sweetheart, Julia Roberts, stars as Kiki, Gwen's long-suffering assistant, and sibling? Like Monica on "Friends," Kiki used to be kinda tubby, and now she's thin as a rail, looking like... well... a movie star. She and Eddie have always been friends, and now, in the midst of the confusion, find that they might actually be falling in love.

Though Cusack and Roberts both have screen persona to burn, and they seem to click together, they don't build up any reasonable chemistry because not enough time in the movie is devoted to them. Still, the film, written by Crystal and Peter Tolan (Bedazzled), is funny.

Each character get at least one funny scene. Azaria has fun pronouncing the word "junket" in his outrageous Spanish accent; it comes out "hunket." Roberts cleans up doing her impersonation of Zeta-Jones calling for her help. Cusack has one brilliant moment when, bewildered and beaten, he looks into Zeta-Jones' eyes and says "you're the devil." And Zeta-Jones deadpans a line about her sister, "she was much more fun when she was fat." (Strangely enough, Crystal gives himself a straight part, something that he's not played much but suits him well.)

Still, the writers can't resist throwing in some frat-boy humor, like a dog licking Crystal's crotch and Cusack pulling cactus prickers out of his pants. And director Joe Roth (better known as a businessman than a director) dives right into this stuff as if it were Shakespeare with no real idea how to make it work. (Roth's best known work as a director is probably Revenge of the Nerds II.) But these few scenes are the lowbrow exception in an otherwise witty film.

But even though I enjoyed the film, I can't help thinking of the slightly similar Notting Hill, in which Roberts plays a movie star -- a sweet one who's able to take care of herself -- inviting poor unsuspecting Hugh Grant on a press junket just to get a few minutes alone with him. That film only spent a few small subplots skewering Hollywood, and instead developed a satisfying romance. (Plus it's the only film Roberts has made to date that's allowed her to fully cash in on her powerful screen presence.)

America's Sweethearts aims at the reviewing press and hits, showing them on a fantasy working weekend complete with hotel, drinks and gift bags. The movie also makes fun of us with the same delicate, diluted venom reserved for producers, actors, directors and publicists. Even Larry King (appearing as himself) acts like a dope. Still, it's nice to know that on the Hollywood hierarchy chart, we rank higher than screenwriters, who don't even appear onscreen in the movie. I couldn't help but feel a little flattered.

Ultimately, though, America's Sweethearts seems flat; the snappy characters never really burst through their two dimensions. But like an extended comedy sketch, the film does indeed deliver the laughs, and I suppose we can't ask much more than that in these mediocre summer months.

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