Truly, Julia Roberts leads a charmed life. While this observation will surprise no one, it apparently bears repeating, by any and every media outlet within reach of whoever it is that handles her publicity. Even when things have gone wrong, she comes out looking fantastic. And things have gone wrong: a child of divorce whose father died of cancer when she was only 10, Roberts knows something about hardship. And hey, in her later life, she’s also endured difficulties: the divorce from Lyle Lovett, the nasty non-communication with brother Eric, Hook. And oh yes, the break-ups. She’s had a few of those, involving her beautiful male counterparts, all of which Us magazine, et. al. likes to trot out when the time is right, that is, whenever she has another break-up. Is there another person on the planet whom you don’t actually know, whose romantic history you do know so intimately as Julia Roberts?
If that history seems like too much information to you, imagine how it feels for her. (And this is the game you most love to play, isn’t it? imagining how anything feels for her ) As Roberts noted during her recent appearance on Letterman—when she was supposedly promoting her new romantic comedy, America’s Sweethearts—her most recent split, from Benjamin Bratt, is attracting way too much attention. Yes, the timing is creepily convenient: just as America’s Sweethearts was opening and just as Time magazine was anointing her the Best American Movie Star (whatever that might begin to mean). With this cosmic convergence of circumstances, Julia is again everywhere, even more everywhere than usual, on every tabloid cover, on tv, in gossip columns, forever wearing that sleek Oscar dress, on Ben’s arm, beaming like she’s fit to burst. Whoa: it turns out that the couple wasn’t quite so happy as they looked. The People magazine version is this: he wanted her to settle down, she wanted to make the most of her hot iron of a career. Still, Julia told Dave (and why would she lie?), they parted amicably. She added, so graciously, that Ben’s a good man, just not her man anymore. What a trooper.
And what good timing. It’s like a movie. In fact, it’s a lot like America’s Sweethearts, a supposed send-up of the movie business written by co-star and producer Billy Crystal (he plays a super-publicist named Lee) and Peter Tolan (also his co-writer on Analyze This), and directed by the severely out-of-practice Joe Roth (who directed Revenge of the Nerds II many moons ago, and then headed Disney for six years—suffice it to say, he has some bones to pick). But the send-up is doggedly unclever in its attention to the vagaries of fame, insecurities of famous people, and artifice of Hollywood romance. Taking aim at too familiar targets (self-absorbed movie stars, obsequious attendants, cutthroat publicists, and snarfling movie junketeers), the movie makes a standard moralistic point: selfish people will get their comeuppance (oh yes, the movie industry has a moral order). And so what if the end of the film actually re-subscribes to all the bullshit that the rest of it has been making fun of? True love, you know, it triumphs over everything. We do believe in you, Julia. We do.
The sweethearts of the title do not technically include Roberts, but she is the number one sweetheart (we know that without being told). The movie’s sweethearts are the Most Fabulous Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and her estranged husband Eddie (John Cusack). Roberts is Gwen’s longtime assistant and supposedly “mousy” sister Kiki, but you know there’s not a moment, even during brief flashbacks when she wears her much-publicized “fat-suit,” that Roberts looks remotely unlike her relentlessly superb self. This self, or rather, Kiki, is the girl with whom Eddie finally falls in love, after Gwen dumps him for the unconvincingly swaggering, bizarrely accented (“Iee’m not eenvited to the honket!!??”), and brazenly talentless Hector (Hank Azaria). There’s no reason for their sudden romance, except, of course, that she’s Julia. To motivate this turn of events, the movie offers two Kikis, the past frumpy one and the current less frumpy one who’s lighter by 60 pounds and thus, inevitably, newly confident and newly beautiful. How could Eddie not adore her? She’s so perky, so lovable, so sweet. She’s so Julia.
The ostensible comedy attending this romantic roundelay is broad and mostly physical, staged at a press junket in the Nevada desert, where every attendee will be stranded. Evidently, such stranding guarantees that they will be won over by the spectacle of Gwen and Eddie smiling at one another in support of their final film together, an SF-action-thriller-romance called Time Over Time. (A brief clip reveals that Eddie’s a time-traveling cop in a silly future-suit and Gwen, I think, is in need of rescue—there’s something to be said here about the America’s Sweethearts’ imitation insight into the inanity of Hollywood titles and plots, but why bother?)
The studio is in a panic because no one has seen Time Over Time: it’s unfinished and worse, in the hands of its eccentric, “arty” director, Hal (Christopher Walken), who’s reportedly still editing, locked away in the Unabomber’s cabin, which he’s had flown in and deposited on his own expansive lawn. And so, Lee is pressed into assembling an all-stops-out junket for this grand unseen product. Though he acts as though he has the utmost contempt for his job and the idiots he deals with daily, Lee—aided by his know-nothing minion (Seth Green, a.k.a. Oz, and why oh why did he quit his day job on Buffy?)—agrees to do the junket, in order to keep that same hateful job. The thinking is that if Time Over Time makes a gazillion dollars like the other nine films starring Gwen and Eddie, Lee wins. Something.
This illogical logic sounds screwball-ready, but the movie never gets beyond being a series of jokes. While the critically maligned Scary Movie 2 takes a similarly scattershot approach to plot, in America’s Sweethearts, the pay scale is higher and the jokes are more or less on topic, that topic being the movie biz. America’s Sweethearts feigns an insider’s look at the odious monsters who run said biz (Stanley Tucci’s studio head is so devoted to making money that he’s gleeful when Eddie threatens suicide) and the mealy-mouthed moo-cows who dress up said biz (the members of the press are slavering hangers-on, asking the same dreary dull questions again and again, except for Larry King, who plays himself, pelting Gwen with “hardball” questions about her affair with “a very handsome young Spanish fella”).
But America’s Sweethearts doesn’t go inside anything. And why should it? Everyone knows the score: movie stars are only into glitz and surface, and you—self-conscious consumer—pay cash money to see their glitz and surface. This is what movie stardom is all about, what Julia is all about. Indeed, this is what is most smug and annoying about America’s Sweethearts: for all its professed behind-the-scenes-ness (newsflash: junkets are boring and uninformative, celebrities are narcissists, and reporters are dupes), it still lets the celebs come out on top, as jolly good sports (Zeta-Jones, who, according to a gushing Larry King during a “real life” interview on 21 July, is nothing like Gwen, but just oh so down-to-earth), self-aware clowns (Crystal, whose Lee is a couple of times apparently fellated by Gwen’s ferocious Doberman Pinscher), or really nice movie stars—best movie stars—like Roberts.
And so here you are again, within the perfect circle that is Julia. Repetition. At film’s end, Kiki and Eddie enact their final-clinch in front of a crowd of applauding, awestruck reporters, like Julia Roberts (playing Julia Roberts as a superstar) did with Hugh Grant (playing Hugh Grant as an ordinary person) in Notting Hill. Of the many bad ideas in America’s Sweethearts (Eddie almost falling off a roof in front of that same crowd of reporters, Eddie and Hector duking it out in a restaurant in front of that same crowd of reporters, the reporters playing themselves in front of that same crowd of reporters), this one stands out. It’s unlikely that Julia—who, as Kiki, has actually just shown some backbone in preceding scenes—would be waiting around in the background to be saved by her movie star beau, no matter how pretty he is. Then again, her life is charmed.