THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Back in 1990, I reviewed a movie called Crazy People. Dudley Moore played an ad executive who was committed to a psychiatric hospital after suggesting that advertisements should tell the truth. Once there, he got the other patients to help him create these "honest" ads. The film contained some of the most hilarious scenes of the year, as these new ads were unveiled ("Volvo - boxy, but good!"). What was weird, though, was that while those scenes were funny, everything else utterly died up on the screen. I never thought I'd experience such a weirdly disjointed comedy ever again, but then here comes America's Sweethearts, another picture that alternately made me laugh and cringe.

John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones play movie stars who reunite in America's Sweethearts
John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones play Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison, married movie stars who have done a number of successful pictures together. (The opening is a very funny montage of scenes from their movies, which look like every critic's worst nightmare.) The couple's popularity has been diminished by their divorce. Eddie has checked himself into a new-age meditation retreat, while Gwen has started shacking up with her Spanish co-star Hector (Hank Azaria). Their newest - and probably last - film is about to open, and a nervous studio chief (Stanley Tucci) wants them to get back together for publicity purposes. He recruits publicist Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal) - whom he has just fired - to organize a massive press junket at which Eddie and Gwen will reunite. There are two problems, the first of which is that the director (Christopher Walken) has stolen the film from the studio and will unveil it only at the junket.

The other problem is that Gwen and Eddie don't want to see each other. Lee enlists the help of Gwen's sister/assistant Kiki (Julia Roberts) to help him get the couple to cooperate. What no one knows is that Kiki is secretly in love with Eddie. In other words, America's Sweethearts uses what can only be termed "the Julia Roberts Plot." You know the drill: Roberts falls in love with a man she's not supposed to have. Will she eventually get him? Of course she will. That's part of the formula. (My Best Friend's Wedding skirted that issue, but only once in a career does a star the magnitude of Julia Roberts fail to land the leading man.)

America's Sweethearts has one of the most obnoxious romances I've seen in a long time. What bothers me isn't so much that the love triangle is old hat; done well, this kind of thing works over and over again. The problem is that the screenplay (by Crystal and Peter Tolan) is so filled with the trademark Crystal-brand schtick that it obliterates our chances of caring about these characters. Even worse, Cusack and Roberts just don't do that kind of schtick well. Cusack plays a sad-sack mope who is constantly beset by embarrassments that he is helpless to avoid. The guy is one of my favorite actors, but this kind of role just doesn't suit him well at all. He's too smart to get caught up in such dopiness (after falling onto a cactus, a security camera catches Eddie pulling thorns out of his pants, making it look like he's masturbating in public). And Roberts doesn't really even give a performance. She flashes her smile, does that laughy thing, and occasionally rolls her eyes innocently. It's autopilot acting. The performers who come off looking good are Crystal (naturally) and - surprisingly - Zeta-Jones. She floored me with her ability to pull off such broad comedy. Who would have thought that by playing a neurotic, conniving bitch the actress would come off as more likable than the Pretty Woman?

Everything about the love story is shamelessly forced. Such as the revelation that Kiki used to be fat. (Apparently, Eddie would have loved her and not Gwen had she weighed 100 lbs. less. How's that for "true love?") Of course, that's mild compared to Azeria's turn as Hector. He continually urges Gwen to attend the "hunket." Forget the borderline racist aspects of the character; when you have to rely on funny accents to get a laugh, you're in big trouble. Naturally, his comeuppance at the end involves speculation that (say it with me here) he has a small penis.

As a romantic comedy, America's Sweethearts is atrocious. As a skewering of Hollywood ego, it's actually quite funny. Crystal and Tolan take aim at movie-star excess and the Tinseltown hype machine, hitting their targets more often than not. One of the best scenes involves Gwen and Eddie being asked the same questions all day long by a series of journalists. As the day wears on, Eddie starts making up ridiculous answers, including an implication that he's had a three-way tryst with Gwen and Hector. All the stuff with the studio head is funny too. The film's director is Joe Roth who, in the past, ran the film divisions at both 20th Century Fox and Disney. He knows all the little ways a studio head can have a heart attack, so those moments have real comic energy.

Like Crazy People, this one depends on your outlook. You can take a glass-is-half-full approach and recommend the film for its Hollywood satire, which admittedly made me laugh hard. Or, you can take a glass-is-half-empty approach and slam it for being such an insipid and moronic love story. In life, I generally consider myself to be a "half-full" kind of guy. But when I see a movie with a stellar cast like this, I get very thirsty. Half a glass won't do. America's Sweethearts sent me out of the theater with a sour taste in my mouth.

( out of four)

America's Sweethearts is rated PG-13 for language, some crude and sexual humor. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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