America’s Sweethearts

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From the opening montage which introduces its two central characters, the megastar married couple of Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones), in a series of clips from their box-office hits, it’s apparent that America’s Sweethearts is a satirical look at the high-stakes world of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s equally obvious that as a satire, it’s not just tame, but lame.

These highlights of Eddie and Gwen’s joint career — poorly written and performed scenes where highly improbable situations invariably lead to an uninspired fade-out kiss — prove their movies are straight-to-video schlock, not $100 million-grossing epics. So from the get-go, the filmmakers assume two conflicting things: that the audience is media-savvy enough to follow this behind-the-scenes tale; and that they can’t discern the difference between gold and pyrite. America’s Sweethearts itself falls into the category of fool’s gold, because it uses an A-list cast to mask the fact that there’s nothing of real value beneath its shiny surface.

The recently separated Eddie and Gwen (she left him for Spanish actor Hector, the preening, lisping and utterly unconvincing Hank Azaria) are brought together again to publicize their last joint effort at a press junket, which is basically a choreographed encounter between the media and actors-filmmakers anxious to promote their latest offering. Which makes the real star of this show not the alleged “America’s sweethearts,” but the studio’s head publicist, Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal), who does everything he can to entertain the attending press. (This appears to be a TV-only junket, an indication that the studio doesn’t want any actual critics around. )

Crystal, who co-wrote the script with Peter Tolan (who tackled similar themes with a sharper wit on “The Larry Sanders Show”), can’t leave well enough alone. Into this clash of egos, they add Gwen’s sister Kiki (Julia Roberts), who’s her long-suffering personal assistant. There’s a What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? brewing in this sibling dynamic, but director Joe Roth (Coupe De Ville) just sees a screwball comedy. And Roth, who runs the studio which made this film and is devoted to pleasing his big-name actors, calls the shots. That’s actually the point here.

Amid some good things (chillingly on-target work from Stanley Tucci as a duplicitous studio mogul and Christopher Walken as a self-indulgent director) and many bad ones (numerous flaccid penis jokes), this frothy comedy actually examines the very serious pursuit of power in Hollywood. This enticing premise could yield a fascinating exploration of stardom and the feudal system which tends to those on top. But in the case of America’s Sweethearts, too many movie stars got in the way.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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