America's Sweethearts

                         Anyone who has ever covered a press junket will tell it that, in general, it's not really
             any fun. Studios sometimes fly journalists from around the country to Los Angeles or New York
             where they are wined and dined and allowed to rub elbows with the stars and director of a film.
             There's usually a screening of the movie and the next day, free goodies (usually tie-ins with the
             movie, like a CD of its soundtrack or some tchotchke -- although occasionally something of
             value is included) and, most important to the journalists, free food. For the talent, it's a chance
             to see one another after months (sometimes years) and then be subjected to an endless
             round of questions from newspaper and magazine writers, TV personalities and the ilk. Having
             covered my share of junkets, I can say unequivocally that many of my colleagues ask some of
             the dumbest questions imaginable. Mostly, the actors or directors get a glazed look and parrot
             prepared answers so that a lot of the interviews sound the same. (In fairness, there are many
             reputable people who do the appropriate preparation, ask intelligent and probing questions,
             and sometimes get the interviewee to offer up a unique answer.)
                     So, the idea for a film that parodies the junket experience sounded great on paper.
             To be fair, some of
AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS is amusing, but the topic calls out for
              the kind of satirical spin employed in
THE PLAYER or the acid-drenched portrait painted
THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. What screenwriters Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan
             have concocted is too reverential and mild. The premise is an amusing one: after a run of
             box-office hits in which they co-starred (demonstrated amusingly in a well-edited opening
             segment), a high profile married acting couple have split up and each is facing an uncertain
             future. Gwen Harrison (a nice turn by Catherine Zeta-Jones) is an egocentric diva (if it's not
             about her, it's not important). She's moved on from her marriage and taken up with a
             Spanish actor named Hector (Hank Azaria with an embarrassingly bad accent in a role
             originally earmarked for Robert Downey Jr.) Former husband Eddie Thomas (John Cusack)
             did not take the end of the marriage as well, suffering a nervous breakdown which led to
             several months at a "wellness center" operated by a shady character with a sketchy
             Indian accent (played by Alan Arkin).

                     The couple's last film together has been held up in the editing process by its eccentric
             "genius" director (Christopher Walken doing his usual "out there" shtick). The studio head
             Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci in an overblown performance) hasn't seen the finished film
             but is planning the press junket nonetheless. He turns to the ace publicist Lee (Crystal)
             whom he recently fired and replaced with a wet-behind-the-ears youngster (Seth Green)
             to save the day. And save it he does, because Lee has access to Kiki (Julia Roberts),
             Gwen's personal assistant and formerly heavyset sister. After some chicanery masterminded
             by Lee, both stars agree to show up for the junket which is held in the middle of the Nevada
             desert. Some predictable and some surprising developments ensue.

                     In addition to the relatively tame script which doesn't go far enough in satirizing the press
             (perhaps at the risk of alienating the very people whom the film is skewering), part of the
           problem with the film is the casting. While Cusack and Zeta-Jones do well individually, they
             are difficult to accept together as the golden couple of Hollywood. Perhaps the most
             egregious casting decision, though, is having recent Oscar-winner Julia Roberts play Kiki.
             By virtue of this actress' presence in the film, the balance is thrown to her favor. Roberts
             actually gives a finely tuned comic performance (although she still relies on that million-watt
             smile when all else fails), but because she is who she is, she brings a great deal of
             baggage to a role that cries out for someone less well-known. In comparison, Zeta-Jones'
             marvelously self-involved Gwen pales.        
                     Executive Joe Roth steps back into the director's chair after nearly a decade and
             AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS suffers the same diffused focus that his earlier efforts
             contained. After the tightly-paced opening, the film flounders a bit until all the major
             players have been introduced. The comedy seems slightly off, but whether that is a
             function of Roth's direction or a weakness in the script isn't completely clear. Roth has
             to shoulder some of the blame, though, for Azaria's misguided and stereotypical
             interpretation of a Latin actor and for Tucci's over-the-top turn. Despite these flaws,
             though, he does deliver a bang-up set piece near the end when the
             film-within-the-film is premiered.

AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS is an interesting experiment for Roth. This is the
             first high concept, quality film his fledgling production company Revolution Studios
             has released. (The first  two,
TOMCATS and THE ANIMAL, are best overlooked.)
             Interest is running high and, in a case of life imitating art, Revolution looked to this movie
             to establish it as a player. It doesn't and it won't.

                                           Rating:                         C-
                                           MPAA Rating:             PG-13 for language, some crude and sexual humor
                                           Running time:              102 mins.
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.