I wonder what David Manning would have thought about America's Sweethearts, the once-over-lightly inside-Hollywood satire directed by Joe Roth. Manning, you may recall, was the movie critic for the Ridgefield Press, a small weekly in southeastern Connecticut, until June of this year, when Newsweek magazine revealed that, in fact, he wasn't the movie critic for the Ridgefield Press because 1) the Ridgefield Press didn't have a movie critic, 2) Manning wasn't a movie critic, 3) he didn't work for the Ridgefield Press and, oh yeah, 4) he didn't exist. Zealous employees in Columbia Pictures' publicity department had dreamed him up and then supplied him/themselves with quote-ad blurbs for their latest releases. ("Another winner!" Manning called The Animal.) Needless to say, the Ridgefield Press, which does exist, was not amused.
But the rest of us were, especially those of us who practice the fine art of movie criticism. Which just goes to show you that we movie critics can take a joke. For the Manning incident is but the latest punchline in a routine that's been going on for over 20 years now ' i.e., the gradual disappearance of true-blue criticism within the Media Entertainment Complex. It's not that there aren't critics around, barking up a storm. But with everything from "Entertainment Tonight" to Entertainment Weekly chasing after box-office figures as if they hold the key to a movie's esthetic worth, critics now have to shout at the tops of their lungs to be heard above the din. No wonder some of them ' not the fine, upstanding folks who write for the alternative press, mind you ' succumb to exclamation marks!
Starring John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the King and Queen of Hollywood, and with Julia Roberts in the unlikely role of Lady in Waiting, America's Sweethearts is set at a press junket, which is where journalists known as blurb whores exchange their integrity for a T-shirt, a tote bag and a few precious moments with a bona fide movie star. (Hence the so-small-it's-unreadable name and affiliation below "ASTONISHING" in a movie's TV ad.) As corrupt as the system already is ' free plane rides, lodging and meals ' I've read accounts of practices even more questionable. A few years ago, for example, Variety reported that a studio was faxing lists of quotes to reviewers, who were asked to choose the one they liked best. See, critics do count! In fact, if blurb whores didn't already exist, Hollywood would have to invent them.
It's a subject ripe for satire, obviously, but America's Sweethearts would prefer to lick, rather than bite, the hand that feeds it. Which is what we should have expected from a director who used to run Fox and Disney. Roth isn't exactly an auteur; 1990's Coupe de Ville was his last time behind the camera. Worse, he doesn't seem to know how to drive a scene forward. Written by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan, who've left some Borscht Belt stains on the script, America's Sweethearts wants to be one of those classic screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s ' Sullivan's Travels or The Miracle of Morgan's Creek or anything else by Preston Sturges. But Roth doesn't have Sturges' timing, his flair for eccentricity, his ability to keep a large cast weaving in and out of the plot. In short, he doesn't have Sturges' talent.
The movie opens with one of those leather scrapbooks, except instead of photographs we see clips from the hit movies of Gwen Harrison (Zeta-Jones) and Eddie Thomas (Cusack), who've been married both on- and off-screen but are on the verge of divorce. Though neither Cusack nor Zeta-Jones has the old-fashioned star power to pull it off, these two are supposed to remind us of Tracy and Hepburn circa Pat and Mike. Or Burton and Taylor circa Cleopatra. But I kept thinking Crowe and Ryan circa Proof of Life. (Oh, how the mightiness of glamour has fallen.) And the script puts forth the idea that, because it's time for the press junket on their last movie together, Gwen and Eddie need to put their game faces on. Gwen, who has no other face, is more than willing. But Eddie, who thinks he's still in love with Gwen, could be a problem.
Enter Billy Crystal as Lee, the world's nicest ' and perhaps the world's only nice ' press agent. Crystal was originally supposed to play Eddie, but when Roberts signed on as Kiki, Gwen's sister/personal assistant, who had a crush on Eddie even before she lost 60 pounds and became, well, Julia Roberts, Crystal was shown the door to his dressing room. When he came back out, he was the "funny guy" in a movie that has quite a few of them, some funny, some not. Hank Azaria gets a few laughs as Hector, Gwen's English-butchering Latin lover. And Alan Arkin, as the Hollywood reincarnation of Jiddu Krishnamurti, gives a nice deadpan spin to the line "Life is a cookie." But Stanley Tucci is all hot air as a ruthless studio boss, and Christopher Walken is all stale air as "legendary" film director Hal Weidmann. The script lets them both down.
Weidmann, who looks like a hippie who's been left out in the sun way too long, appears to be Roth and Crystal's way of slamming Hal Ashby, the director of such movies as Harold and Maude and Shampoo and one of the '70s auteurs parboiled by Peter Biskind in his 1998 book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. That Roth prefers the seamless filmmaking of the '30s and '40s over the let-it-all-hang-out filmmaking of the '70s isn't the problem. The problem is that Roth lacks the craft to keep America's Sweethearts running smoothly. Although the nuts and bolts were invisible, classic Hollywood comedies were well-oiled machines. And they projected a certain innocence that, especially these days, seems refreshing. Back then, if Eddie had had an encounter with a cactus, the needles would have wound up in his rear, not his crotch.
Speaking of cacti, the movie's press junket takes place at a fancy-dancy hotel in the desert outside Las Vegas. Does one have to have seen Ishtar to know that deserts just aren't all that funny? Nor are they an amenable place for the moist yearnings of romance. For, in addition to pitching screwballs, America's Sweethearts pitches woo, an activity it's relatively more successful at. And that's because of Roberts, who's playing another variation on that woman we've come to think of as herself ' America's Real Sweetheart. Kiki (where'd they get that name?) has been surgically attached to her famous sister so long that she can't tell where one starts and the other ends. And yet it's clearly a slave-master relationship. "Did we brush my teeth today?" Gwen says at one point. Obviously, it's about time for Cinderella to try on a glass slipper.
First, of course, she has to cut the weight. And although Julia Roberts with 60 extra pounds turns out to be a perfectly attractive woman, the movie has to go out of its way to show us that Eddie both didn't notice when Kiki was overweight nor particularly cares that she no longer is. What a mensch! Or what an oblivious dope. The movie's never very clear on that one. But having Roberts go through the ugly-duckling-to-swan number has its pleasures, and the movie briefly kicks into gear when Kiki, fed up with both Gwen and Eddie, gives them the Erin Brockovich treatment. As My Best Friend's Wedding proved, Roberts needs rivals to set off her formidable attributes. Zeta-Jones, who manages to be annoying without being comically annoying, isn't much competition, admittedly, but Roberts nevertheless rises to the occasion.
What a trouper!
And you can quote me on that.