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America's Sweethearts  

Julia Roberts... ...Kiki Harrison
Billy Crystal... ...Lee Phillips
Catherine Zeta-Jones... ...Gwen Harrison
John Cusack... ...Eddie Thomas
Hank Azaria... ...Hector
Stanley Tucci... ...Dave Kingman
Christopher Walken... ...Hal Weidmann
Alan Arkin... ...Eddie's "Wellness Guide"

Directed by: Joe Roth
Written by: Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan
Rated PG-13 for language, some crude and sexual humor
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Bitter "Sweethearts"

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Outside of being a long-time Hollywood studio executive, I don't know a great deal about director Joe Roth. But the little I do know helps, I think, to explain why "America's Sweethearts" falls just shy of the comic mark. It's a movie in constant contention with itself ... half pungent satire and half sweet, heartfelt romantic comedy. The film wants to lampoon something it also embraces. Directors like Robert Altman hold a distinct hatred toward Hollywood that results in biting masterpieces like "The Player." I sense that Roth might be a little too close to the source material that makes up his movie's would-be target.

Perhaps "The Player" isn't really an appropriate comparison, as the movie's main source of inspiration is the classic musical "Singin' In the Rain." Borrowed elements are aplenty, yet somehow "Sweethearts" lacks the confidence that flowed from the 1952 musical.

The endeavor brings together the talents of Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, John Cusack, and Catherine Zeta-Jones among others, but even their combined brilliance isn't enough to rescue a film unsure of what direction it wishes to take.

Two of Hollywood's biggest celebrities, on and off-screen couple Gwen Harrison (Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (Cusack) have attained the unofficial status as America's Sweethearts. However, their off-screen romance has ended, and their on-screen chemistry is circling the celebrity drain. The premiere of their latest film is rapidly approaching, but the movie's unorthodox director (Christopher Walken) is still in the editing process. Added to that is the fallout from the recent split between the two leads. In danger of losing his job, veteran press agent Lee Phillips (Crystal) is suddenly asked by the studio's extremely nervous chief (Stanley Tucci) to mastermind one last public appearance between Eddie and Gwen, despite the fact that neither wishes to participate. A daunting task to say the least, yet Lee has a secret weapon ... Gwen's sister, Kiki (Roberts) who has spent her life subjugating the details of her sibling's glamorous life. She also maintains a healthy friendship with Eddie, and with a little luck, she'll be able to pull it off. However, the situation becomes complicated when the friendship between Kiki and Eddie takes a romantic turn.

There are a couple nice comic bits early on, including one where the recluse director decides to purchase the Kaczynski shack to gain a better sense of privacy for the editing process. I also admired the sweet-talking techniques employed by Crystal's press agent in negotiating with the two celebs. But the movie also misses some rather substantial comic targets, including the whole press junket system. Junketeers are much more captivated by any form of gossip rather than the actual film, yet director Roth and writers Crystal and Peter Tolan don't tee off on what would have been some pretty spicy fodder.

For the most part, the cast does a fine job embodying their respective quirky characters. (The only exception might be Hank Azaria as Hector, Gwen's new lover. His lack of credibility is largely due to a selection of voice so corny it would most likely have been rejected by his co-horts on "The Simpsons.") In a performance marking the antithesis of Erin Brockovich, Roberts shines as the ultra-tolerant sister with a winning smile. Her role is perfectly suited for a romantic comedy. Zeta-Jones sinks her pearly whites into the role of a spoiled superstar on a collision course with her own comeuppance. Her role would feel right at home in a blistering Hollywood satire. Basically, the movie's flaw is worn on the sleeve of the Cusack character. Not sure of how to play Eddie Thomas, John Cusack seems to straddle the line between sharp satire and sweet romance. He's a terrific young actor, but looks unusually confused here. He doesn't know which way to point, and neither does the film.

Essentially, biting satire and heartfelt romance are oil and water in the realm of moviemaking. "America's Sweethearts" begins by wanting its audience to laugh at the characters' misfortunes, but does an unusual about face in the second half, hoping to gain viewer sympathy. It's a difficult task for any filmmaker, especially one whose hands are grasping the directoral wheel for the first time.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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