America’s Sweethearts: Joe Roth’s Misfire, Starring Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones

Mildly amusing, but lacking true originality or sharp wit, America’s Sweethearts demonstrates a number of things: that Joe Roth (former Fox and Disney head) is not much of a director, that Billy Crystal can do only one thing as an actor (be Billy Crystal), and that Julia Roberts possesses the kind of star power that easily rises above the bland material she’s given to play.

A high-concept comedy about the “inside” workings of the Hollywood celebrity machine, America’s Sweethearts boasts a talented ensemble, headed by Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, and best of all, Hank Azaria and Christopher Walken.

Name cast will draw the public to the plexes in the first week or so, resulting in muscular opening weekend, though the combination of mixed to dismissive reviews and lukewarm word-of-mouth should curtail B.O. below expectations.

Ten or fifteen years ago, a bland and gentle romantic comedy like America’s Sweethearts, about behind-the-scenes Hollywood, would have been considered brazenly audacious or even outrageously funny. But now-a-days, the lay public is so saturated with gossipy magazines and TV tabloid about Hollywood’s rich and famous, and so cynically informed about celebs’ private lives, that a script like Crystal and Peter Tolan’s is just too familiar and tame, and in moments, downright embarrassing.

This is the second disappointing vehicle (following The Mexican, which didn’t perform well, domestically or internationally) in the post-Oscar career of Julia Roberts, who should be more careful in choosing her screen roles, now that she’s reached a certain level of recognition and achievement.

Every strand of American comedy is present in America’s Sweethearts, including screwball, romantic, and even slapstick. However, after setting a workable and funny premise, the scripters seem to be at a loss of how to keep the ball rolling, resulting in a bumpy comedy that has some wonderful scenes and riotous one-liners, but not enough clever or inventive ideas to sustain interest for its entire running time.

The movie begins extremely well, when vet press agent, Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal), about to lose his job for his younger protge, Danny Wax (Seth Green), regains his power, when studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) asks for his help in organizing a press junket for a movie that’s practically non-existent. The panic-stricken mogul holds that the film will fail if the public doesn’t believe the two feuding stars have reunited. Entrusted and groveled to, Lee agrees to come up with a plan to bring the two once-married but now separate stars together–and bang out a box-office hit.

What Lee fails to realize is that eccentric director Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken), who has so far delivered just the title sequence for the high-budget movie, insists on being in control up to the last moment. Indeed, in the very last scene, Hal descends from a red helicopter with a shockingly honest, cinema-verite picture about the star’s unpleasant off screen persona, claiming that the “script was just shit.”

Roberts stars as Kiki, the devoted personal assistant to the beautiful and narcissistic superstar, Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones). That she also happens to be Gwen’s much-despised and much-abused sister, complicates even more their uneasy relationship. Life with her famous and temperamental sister has never been easy for the awkward and self-conscious Kiki, though, after losing 60 pounds, she is about to embark on a self-discovery journey.

Like Lee, Kiki has agreed to help Gwen and her estranged husband-actor, Eddie Thomas (John Cusack), reunite for one more public appearance to promote their latest movie, Time Over Time. In charge of masterminding a highly-anticipated but bogus event, Lee is using Kiki as his secret weapon, orchestrating a deceptively smooth junket for 300 members of the international press in an isolated Vegas resort.

Unfortunately, it’s an illusion: There’s no love lost between the snippy “sweethearts,” after nine hit movies together and a calamitous 18-month separation, prompted by Gwen’s affair with her new Spanish co-star, Hector (Hank Azaria), and Eddie’s attempt to kill her. In moments, the plot feels like a trashy speculation on the Liz Taylor-Eddie Fisher-Richard Burton triangle, during the shooting of the notorious Cleopatra, as if asking, what would have happened if Taylor and Fisher were reunited once more after their scandalous breakup.

Roth’s first directorial effort since his 1990 comedy, Coupe de Ville, shows the influence of classic screwball comedies by Preston Sturges or Capra, in which a large cast of diverse characters congregates for a special occasion. The huge ensemble (by Hollywood standards) of America’s Sweethearts is refreshing, and the sight of Roberts submerging her persona–and stardom–within such a framework is truly delightful.

Nonetheless, the situations in which most of the characters are put are not nasty, profane, or humorous enough. Hence, early on, a vicious dog shows particular attraction for Lee’s genitals, and later, Eddie falls into a cactus while spying on Gwen, leading the security guards to believe that he’s masturbating while actually removing the thorns from his pants, all of which is of course shown on TV. Almost a whole reel (the last one) is devoted to a private and public discussion of Hector’s penis size, with Gwen using her lipstick to demonstrate its proportions.

Despite the modern twist and unusual locale, ultimately, America’s Sweethearts is very much a typical Roberts vehicle, a universal fairy tale not unlike Pretty Woman or Runaway Bride. Once again, Roberts plays a Cinderella character, a modest, down-to-earth woman, who has neglected her own needs and feelings in service of other people–here, her selfish, endlessly demanding sister. As Gwen’s protector and servant, Kiki has never been one to speak up, but, suddenly, she’s swept up in the glamorous world of “crazy” Hollywood royalty. The dramatic turn of event is provided by an unexpected night Kiki spends with Eddie, realizing what’s she has long known but refused to acknowledge, that she’s in love with her sister’s soon-to-be-divorced husband.

Roberts and Cusack are as always reliable, and so is Zeta-Jones, who’s stuck with the yarn’s most unsympathetic character. But it’s the secondary performers who shine, particularly Azaria, as Gwen’s not-too-bright Castillian lover and aspiring leading man, and Alan Arkin, as Eddie’s long-haired “wellness guide,” who offers the heartbroken star a most peculiar spiritual nourishment.


Pro co: A Revolution Studios presentation of a Roth/Arnold and Face production
US dist: Columbia
Int’l dist:
Exec prods: Charles Newirth, Peter Tolan
Prods: Billy Crystal, Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth
Directed by Joe Roth
Screenplay: Crystal and Tolan
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Prod des: Garreth Stover
Ed: Stephen A. Rotter
Music: James Newton Howard


Julia Roberts
Billy Crystal
Catherine Zeta-Jones
John Cusack
Hank Azaria
Stanley Tucci
Christopher Walken
Alan Arkin
Seth Green