It’s refreshing to encounter a Hollywood summer release that’s not only funny, but free of the gross-out stuff that’s the stock-in trade of contemporary comedies. “America’s Sweethearts” is a breezy, cheerfully silly satire of today’s Hollywood mores, both personal and professional, incorporating just enough of a romantic element to satisfy the multitudes without getting maudlin about it. It has the same mixture of farce and sweetness that marked “Singin’ in the Rain,” and although it’s nowhere near the equal of that classic (and lacks the vivacity its musical score provided), the fact that it can be mentioned in the same breath is enough.
Billy Crystal, who co-wrote the script, must have stored up a lot of unused material prepared for all those gigs at the Oscar ceremonies, because the picture is a virtual parade of jokes about the entertainment industry. It certainly doesn’t hurt that his partner in crime is Peter Tolan, whose sharp observations of the Hollywood scene were already well demonstrated in his writing for “The Larry Sanders Show.” Together they’ve concocted an amusing scenario centered on a junket for a big-budget picture on which lots of careers are at stake. Crystal plays Lee Phillips, a recently-fired press agent who’s cajoled by rabidly ruthless studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) to put together a bash for the debut of “Time Over Time,” the latest project from brilliant but reclusive director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken). Not only does Weidmann refuse to let anybody see the picture before its big press premiere, but its co-stars, the once happily- married couple denoted by the title, have since acrimoniously split and need to be reunited for the event. He (Eddie Thomas, played by John Cusack) is ensconced in an isolated rest home presided over by a gibberish-spouting “Wellness Guide” (Alan Arkin), while she (Gwen Harrison, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) is living with her new lover, a dense Castilian named Hector (played by Hank Azaria with an accent so absurd it would even make Jon Voight proud) while being skewered by the press because her latest solo movies have bombed. Assisted by the clueless young exec (Seth Green’s Danny Wax) who was originally slated to replace him, Lee tries to persuade all the recalcitrant players to affect amity and schmooze the press assembled at a palatial desert hotel while milking every embarrassment for publicity and praying that the unpredictable Weidmann will actually show up with a finished print. His main ally in all this turns out to be Gwen’s sweet-natured sister and put-upon assistant Kiki (Julia Roberts). Kiki has recently shed sixty pounds (in flashbacks Roberts dons a fat suit not unlike the one Martin Lawrence wore in “Big Momma’s House,” and just about as convincing), but more importantly, it quickly becomes clear that she’s in love with Eddie, who’s still besotted with Gwen. Needless to say, there are all sorts of farcical confrontations and revelations before things get sorted out.
“America’s Sweethearts” is obviously based on a lot of inside gags about the business, but in this day and age, when every filmgoer seems to have spent innumerable hours watching “Entertainment Tonight” and reading “Entertainment Weekly,” there’s nothing here that’s going to go over anyone’s head. Indeed, most viewers will have fun seeing the cliched clips from Gwen and Eddie’s movies and picking out parallels from real-life. (The Elizabeth Taylor- Richard Burton romance on the set of “Cleopatra” is obviously one inspiration, but, whether intentionally or not–probably not, given the timing–the plot now seems to mimic the break-up of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, especially since Weidmann is an almost Kubrickian figure and “Eyes Wide Shut” was kept no less secret than what eventually proves to be “Time Over Time”). Critics will get a special kick from the junket interview sequences, which are, sad to say, only slightly exaggerated, and in which some real entertainment press members embarrass themselves. (I’m not referring to Larry King, who appears as himself yet again here; isn’t it time he got a SAG card?) It’s a curious coincidence, incidentally, that Roberts’ previous comedy, “Notting Hill,” made fun of junkets, too, though must less liberally; she must find them very easy to josh.
In fact, the whole cast seems to be having a fine time, and their enthusiasm is contagious. Roberts is more assured and relaxed than usual, and her beauty comes through effortlessly; she’s a good sport to have done the back story, too. Crystal puts his manic energy to fine use as the smarmily underhanded but essentially good-hearted Lee, and he has some great moments showing the ropes to Green’s befuddled Wax–another amiable turn. Zeta-Jones is a hoot as the perpetually self-absorbed Gwen, while Azaria chews up the scenery more amusingly than one might expect and Arkin proves a wonderfully laid-back charlatan. The trickiest role belongs to Cusack, who has to be both cartoonish and genuine, and he pulls it off nicely. Others will get more attention that he does, but Eddie is really the center of the plot, and Cusack makes him winningly absurd: you can understand why, in spite of all his failings, Kiki would be so smitten with him.
There are problems with “America’s Sweethearts,” of course–the comedy’s awfully broad and blunt when a bit of subtlety would be welcome–but they don’t get serious until the final act. When Weidmann finally appears and “Time Over Time” is shown, it’s a letdown. For one thing director Joe Roth, a capable if uninspired journeyman who’s used all his actors (with the possible exception of Tucci, who’s not as amusing as he should be) quite well up until then, doesn’t seem to have any idea of how to get the best out of Walken: the wonderful weirdness that the actor brought even to junk like “Joe Dirt” isn’t much in evidence here. And from what we see of Weidmann’s movie, it’s impossible to believe that it’s embraced as a masterpiece and poised to become a huge smash. While it plays its required role in wrapping up the “Sweethearts” plot, the “movie” is something nobody in his right mind would want to watch for more than five minutes. This isn’t a new difficulty in pictures with this kind of show-business narrative, of course: if you’ll recall Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” the scenes we were shown toward the close from “Springtime for Hitler,” with Dick Shawn as Adolf, were–apart from the hilarious opening production number, of course–pretty dull. The footage we’re given isn’t even as fetching as that which wrapped up the underappreciated 1966 Vittorio De Sica-Peter Sellers-Neil Simon flop, “After the Fox.” But, to be fair, without revealing too much one can say that what happens here is very much like a modern updating of the device that Comden and Green employed in “Singin’ in the Rain.” And you have to admit that’s an awfully good model, even if the copy is quite a few rungs down from the original.
Whatever flaws one finds in “America’s Sweethearts,” moreover, pale beside its infectious energy and its many hilarious moments. The movie’s a deft, old-fashioned combination of jokes and sentiment, the cinematic equivalent of one of Crystal’s opening monologues at the Academy Awards. A pity they couldn’t figure a way to put his Yul Brynner impression into the mix.