Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. George and Gracie Burns. Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas.
All these Hollywood couples had the ability to make audiences fall in love with them. Together they dazzled. Apart … not so great.
In the case of “America’s Sweethearts” Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Eddie (John Cusak), audiences won’t even tolerate watching them apart. So, it’s particularly brutal on box office receipts when, after making 10 films together, Gwen runs off with her Spanish costar Hector (Hank Azaria) and launches a solo career.
But her last two films tanked and she’s desperate for a hit.
Eddie, on the other hand, has entered a self-help center, run by a tanned, Indian-accented Alan Arkin, where he tries to remind himself how grateful he is for the moon and the stars.
He takes a variety of herbal supplements and relives the night he drove his motorcycle through the front window of a Chinese restaurant into Gwen and Hector’s table.
The stars aren’t the only ones taking a beating, however.
The actors’ last film together, “Time Over Time,” has gone into delays, thanks to eccentric director Hal (Christopher Walken), and the studio chief Kingman (Stanley Tucci) is beginning to sweat. He comes up with a solution, though. Even without a film, favorable press can be obtained at the film’s junket by getting the couple back together again. For this colossal feat, he enlists press agent Lee (Billy Crystal), who, if he succeeds will get his job back.
Since working on Eddie is a one-person job, Lee asks Kiki (Julia Roberts) to convince her employer and sister Gwen of the reconciliation.
Crystal, who shares writing duties with Peter Tolan (“Analyze This,” “The Larry Sanders Show”), came up with the idea while on a European junket for 1999’s “Analyze This.”
Members of the press asked the comedian why he hadn’t done more films with Meg Ryan (his costar in “When Harry Met Sally”), and said to him how odd it was for them to see her kissing another actor. He exploded the concept from there, added in a round of jabs at the press, studio heads and big-headed actors. In fact, few walk away from this film without insult or injury. Bitter, perhaps?
Crystal’s idea has potential, particularly in an industry where so many lose their box office titles when they, God forbid, try something different. Sylvester Stallone’s dramatic turn springs to mind.
But even if you aren’t interested in the story, which offers an exaggerated behind-the-scenes glimpse at the love-hate relationship between Hollywood and the press, the acting talent should reel you in.
Cusak flexes his acting talents as the pining, potentially psychotic Eddie. Having survived the ’80s, Cusak has matured into a melancholic’s fantasy figure, complete with dark clothes, moods and pessimistic air. This role is a perfect follow up to equally notable ones in “High Fidelity” and “Grosse Point Blank.”
After having played so many fragrant roses in her native Britain, Zeta-Jones has more than compensated in the United States by taking on diva and dragon roles. As Gwen, she is a lascivious, vanity-mad, self-centered, manipulating diva-bitch, whose face you wish James Cagney would smash into a grapefruit.
The grande dame of center stage, Roberts takes the backseat for a change and absolutely blooms as the formerly weight-challenged Kiki. She tones down the teeth-flashing and lays on the humanity. And she’s amazingly vibrant with Cusak; particularly in a whoops-we’re-waking-up-next to each other sequence. Why haven’t these two paired up before?
Crystal delivers one-liners with deft skill while demonstrating he’s game for crueler fare. He’s obviously been reading Hitler’s memoirs. This veteran comedian also plays well off of the stunned, short-shorn Seth Green and the balding, wild-eyed Tucci.
Azaria has a gift with accents and at first his Castilian banter provides some laughs, but after awhile it grows tiresome.
Finally, with his hippie hair and antisocial attitude, his character buys the Unabomber’s cabin and transports it to his land so he can use it as an editing suite, Walken turns in a stellar cameo.
Like so many other romantic comedies, “America’s Sweethearts” is woefully uneven. It’s good when it’s being funny but much worse when going for the swoon quotient. Star factor and Crystal witticisms keep this one afloat.