For most, America’s Sweethearts is one of those easily forgettable, throwaway films of the early 00s. But to dismiss it entirely would be a mistake considering how hard it tried to carry off a Greek plotline in the context of a Hollywood tragedy. Co-written by Peter Tolan and Billy Crystal (best known for working together on Analyze This and Analyze That), the narrative begins in the wake of the breakup of Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the need to promote the final film, Time Over Time, they made together.
This unfortunate task is left to recently fired publicist Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal), who renegotiates getting his job back with studio boss Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) in exchange for getting both Eddie and Gwen to attend the press junket for their movie. Because Gwen has filed a restraining order against Eddie, who has been hiding out at a New Age treatment facility for the past six months, this herculean undertaking is worth Kingman giving Lee whatever he wants. Thus, Lee sets about greasing the appropriate wheels by using the lackey who was supposed to take over his position, Danny Wax (Seth Green, in one of his most forgettable performances), to help him organize the junket at a remote Mariott in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, he calls Gwen’s assistant/sister, Kiki (Julia Roberts, surprisingly accustomed to being in panned movies), to ask her to get Gwen to agree to promote the film. While Kiki knows Gwen will be resistant, she also knows that she won’t have much choice considering a bombed Larry King interview during which all of her fans called in and said they can’t watch her in movies without Eddie. She has further lost favor with the public for cheating on Eddie with a sleazy Spaniard named Hector Gorgonzolas (Hank Azaria). And, even though Eddie deliberately crashed into a restaurant where the two of them were dining with his motorcycle, Gwen realizes how beneficial he is to her dangerously fledgling career. With Kiki working on convincing Gwen, Lee sets out to pluck Eddie from his “wellness center” by bribing his guru (Alan Arkin) with the promise of a car.
And so begins the shaky promotion of a movie directed by a notorious auteur, Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken), with the sort of insanity combination of Werner Herzog and David Lynch. Because of his unpredictable temperament, no one–least of all the studio head–has actually seen a print of the film, which Weidmann promises to debut in front of everyone, press included, at the same time. Anxiously awaiting his arrival with the thing that everyone is gathered for that weekend, Lee does his best to create as many smoke and mirrors as possible by focusing the press’ attention on the drama between Eddie and Gwen. For instance, the first night that Eddie and Gwen arrive at the hotel, Eddie sneaks over to her cottage to spy on what he thinks is her standing by the pool (Kiki later reveals to him that it was her). He falls off the fence and lands on a cactus, prompting him to pick out the thorns in a manner that makes it appear to the security camera overlooking him that he’s masturbating. Lee prevents Eddie from any legal trouble by bribing the security guards with the swag bags from the junket and then pretends to insist on confiscating the tape from them, only to leak it himself to the media in order to take attention off of Time Over Time itself.
Gwen, drama monger that she is, demands that Kiki arrange a meeting between her and Eddie so that she can tell him, essentially, how to behave in their interviews with the press the next morning. Kiki, who has bristled and acted like a deer in the headlights every time Gwen mentions Eddie, is clearly harboring amorous emotions toward him and is nervous to see him after all this time. Before she can bring herself to knock on his door, she flashes back to a year before, right after news of Gwen’s infidelity had surfaced. At that time, Kiki was sixty pounds heavier and lacking in the level of confidence she possesses now. Eddie, drunk and depressed, kisses Kiki, who makes noticeably resistant yet succumbing hand motions as he does so. It is this scene that initiates America’s Sweethearts‘ most overt attempt at Greek intrigue: the sister betraying the sister with a Hamlet-esque mutual love interest. And, of course, Eddie ends up sleeping with Kiki and then ruining it by running to Gwen the second she says she needs him the next morning. To attempt such a storyline in a film so blatantly manufactured for Hollywood is admirable, and even works at times–as when Hal Weidmann finally shows up with Time Over Time, only to confess he has altered it into a documentary that ultimately showcases the disintegration of Eddie and Gwen’s relationship, of which Hal comments, “Love is a bridge built between two people. We want what exists between them to be real. The film you are about to see is Time Over Time, or is it? The details are unimportant. Simply put, the script was shit. I tossed it. I instead decided to let the camera capture real life. I filmed my actors without their knowledge. I let the camera run after takes. I placed hidden cameras around the set. The end result is a story far more involving than anything manufactured by actors and writers. This is real life. The juice. The stink. The glory.”
Mortified by how she comes across on screen, which is to say how she actually is in real life, Gwen is the most affronted by the candid contents of the screen, also revealing Kiki’s loving and admiring glances at Eddie as he argues with Gwen over her inappropriate behavior with Hector. Eddie, on the other hand, notes to Hal, “I think this is the best work I’ve ever done.” Soon, everything is out in the open, and Eddie professes that he’s been in love with Kiki all along since, when it comes to Gwen, “The girl I used to make movies with…that’s not the real you. That’s you pretending to be real, which you’re really good at. So when I’m with you in real life, I think I’m going to be with the real you, but I’m not. I’m with the real you that’s with me right now, not the real you from the movies, and I don’t want to be with you.”
Where America’s Sweethearts truly fails is in not going all the way with its Greek plot, wrapping everything up in a neat bow at the end that doesn’t quite ring true considering all the melodrama that has occurred.