Those expecting "America's Sweethearts" to be just another tired romantic comedy starring Julia Roberts ("Notting Hill" anyone?) are in for a treat. Under the assured comic direction of producer-turned-director Joe Roth and working from a droll script penned by stand-up comedian-turned-actor Billy Crystal (seen recently in "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle") and Peter Tolan ("Bedazzled"), "America's Sweethearts" is a ruthlessly-funny satire of movie marketing-gone-awry in Hollywood. And backed up by an all-star cast that includes Crystal, Roberts, John Cusack ("High Fidelity"), and Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Traffic"), you have what may be the most memorable romantic comedy since "Bridget Jones's Diary".
The titular "America's Sweethearts" are husband-and-wife acting team Eddie Thomas (Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta-Jones), who have starred together in a string of hit romances with titles such as "Sasha & the Optometrist", "The Bench", and "Autumn with Greg & Peg". Unfortunately, their marriage dissolved a year-and-a-half ago when Gwen moved in with a Spanish actor named Hector (Hank Azaria of "Mystery Men"), and Eddie checked himself into a New Age nuthouse.
The last film they made together, the long-delayed "Time Over Time", is finally about to be finished by the film's reclusive and eccentric director, Hal Weisman (Christopher Walken of "Sleepy Hollow"), and the hit-starved studio desperately needs it to be a smash. So it's up to veteran studio publicist Lee (Crystal) to make sure that the two estranged leads show up together at an upcoming press junket and create some positive pre-release buzz from the possibility of Eddie and Gwen getting back together again. Of course, Lee can't do it by himself, so he enlists the help of Gwen's publicist Kiki (Roberts), who also happens to be Gwen's long-neglected younger sister, to help smooth the waters. Unfortunately, what Lee doesn't know is that Kiki has long held a flame for Eddie, which further complicates matters.
The story of "America's Sweethearts" follows every rule in the book of romantic comedies and the ending is hardly a surprise, but it doesn't matter. In comparison to some of the lifeless entries in the genre ("Runaway Bride", "Someone Like You", etc.), a lot of interesting stuff happens between the opening and closing credits. Crystal is a veteran of Hollywood and Tolan is a veteran of satire (he was a writer for HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show", which lampooned late-night talk shows), and together, they mercilessly skewer the marketing machinations of Hollywood, leaving no stone unturned.
The most obvious reference in the film is "Eyes Wide Shut". Walken's Weisman embodies the late Stanley Kubrick (whose last project, "A.I.", was recently completed by Steven Spielberg), and like Weisman's latest film, Kubrick's ulta-secretive swan song took two years to reach the screen. In addition, Cusack and Zeta-Jones are stand-ins for the husband-and-wife acting duo of "Eyes Wide Shut", Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (whose own divorce has recently garnered media attention). Other targets include the much-maligned practice of Hollywood press junkets, the marketing techniques used by studios to manipulate the media, the general air of cynicism that pervades Tinseltown, and the romantic comedy genre in general, as demonstrated by a highlight reel of Eddie and Gwen's combined filmography (which are all howlingly bad).
One big reason why "America's Sweethearts" works is the terrific ensemble of actors. Julia Roberts redeems herself for the so-so "The Mexican" with her wonderfully funny yet stirring portrayal of the ugly-duckling sister who is at Gwen's beck-and-call 24/7. Zeta-Jones is perfectly cast as the self-centered and cold prima donna actress, while Cusack seems right at home playing the film's likably off-center romantic lead. As one of the film's co-writers, Crystal gives himself many of the film's best lines, while Azaria steals a number of scenes as a Spaniard with a speech impediment. In the supporting roles, Stanley Tucci ("Deconstructing Harry") is terrific as a heartless producer with a habit of talking from both sides of his mouth, Walken delivers his lines with giddy enthusiasm when he makes an appearance in the last reel, and CNN's Larry King has a great cameo as himself.
"America's Sweethearts" may look like just another romantic comedy, but it isn't-- similar to "The Player" or "Bowfinger", it is also a brilliant satire on the Hollywood movie marketing machine. With its smart and funny script, and an ensemble of talented actors on board, "America's Sweethearts" is a satisfyingly sweet confection that will be remembered as one of the summer's best.