America’s Sweethearts opens with a montage of scenes from films — the huge, blockbuster films — starring America’s favorite onscreen couple: Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas. The sequence is hilarious, because the upshot of it is that these are bad actors who make shit movies that audiences nevertheless love. Since this is a phenomenon I frequently rant over, and one the filmmakers clearly found worthy of satire, it would never have occurred to me to expect that the rest of the movie to follow would fall into the same category.
So you can imagine my surprise…
Actually, the cast of America’s Sweethearts are not bad actors — they’re just badly directed from a bad script here. And that’s bad enough. This is cutesy-pootsie cotton candy that pulls all its punches and could only survive on the chemistry of its stars, which is unfortunately completely nonexistent. This is a movie that, schizophrenically, thinks it’s a fluffy little mainstream comedy but sports an inappropriately cynical undertone that ends up insulting the very audience it courts. Perhaps Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan set out to write a dark, mean satire about how Hollywood spins the media and spins audiences, how the industry lies and cheats and does any underhanded thing it can think of to get your ass in a $10 multiplex seat. Perhaps director Joe Roth watered it down; perhaps the studio watered it down, knowing full well that dark satires do not put asses in seats (see: Fight Club; no one else did), and that’s how we ended up with yet another obvious, sweetness-and-light romantic-triangle story that, what the hell, just happens to be set in backstabbing Hollywood amongst seriously fucked-up people you wouldn’t want to get within ten feet of.
Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones: Traffic, The Haunting) and Eddie (everyguy John Cusack: Being John Malkovich, Cradle Will Rock, completely miscast as a diva) are a couple onscreen and off, until recently. Now comes time for them to promote their final film together, and neither one wants to talk to the other. Enter Lee Phillips, scum-sucking press agent (Billy Crystal: Analyze This, The Princess Bride, too sweet to pull off such a role), whose big plan is to make it look like Gwen and Eddie have reunited, ‘cuz stupid, sheeplike audiences can’t bear to think of them apart. (Are you insulted yet?) So Lee sets up a press junket at a resort in the middle of the desert, all the better to feed the media a line for them to feed to audiences.
Did I mention that Julia Roberts (The Mexican, Erin Brockovich) is here? You know, America’s sweetheart, whom people will watch in any old crap? Yup. She’s Kiki, kind and friendly, put-upon and abused sister/personal assistant to tedious spoiled-brat Gwen. She used to be frumpy and timid, and a little overweight. Now she’s slender, and has had a hair and smile transplant. Eddie, on first encountering the new Kiki, notices that something is different about her, but can’t quite place what it is. Even when she tells him she lost 60 pounds, he says, “You never looked overweight — you never looked fat to me.” They are, of course, destined to end up together, and this is obvious from the film’s posters, for pete’s sake, so I’m not spoiling anything. But if Eddie’s perception of Kiki hasn’t changed — he thought she was attractive before and he thinks she’s attractive now — what was the point of making Kiki a fattie in the first place? If the Eddie/Kiki story is not about — and thank god it isn’t — how he couldn’t love her when she was fat and can love her now that she’s thin — that what was the point? The point is: Julia Roberts… in a fat suit! Isn’t it hilarious? America’s sweetheart, but fat. Fat people are inherently funny, aren’t they?
Always, Roth, Crystal and Co. shoot for the cheapest laughs they can find, and ignore the tougher, smarter ones they might have discovered in so potentially rich a vein as Hollywood’s marketing practices. (Oh, the irony that Sony, home of faux critic David Manning and faux Patriot fans, is the company releasing this film…) Story in a lull? Have a dog sniff someone’s crotch. Lob a golf ball at someone’s head. Throw a guy crotch-first into a cactus. Bring in Hank Azaria (who up till now had been on my Can Do No Wrong list) to embarrass himself with a caricature of a Spaniard. Bring in Stanley Tucci (ditto the list placement) to embarrass himself by throwing tantrums onscreen. Look! Over here! Enjoy this bit of physical slapstick completely unrelated to the story being told! Laugh, dammit! We do this in the hopes that you will not think too much about the implied message behind our film, which is that you, our audience, are lemmings who enjoy being sold a lie.
All I can think is: Gwen and Eddie pretend to be happy to sell their film. And Julia Roberts is all over the place assuring us all that her recent split with Ben Bratt was friendly and they’re still bestest friends. Should we believe her? Will more people see America’s Sweethearts if they do believe her? How insane is that?