The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday December 2nd

`Sweethearts' Parodies Itself

Four of Five Stars

When the movie industry wakes up after a night out on the town, stares at the mirror and thinks long and seriously about itself, the result can sometimes be, well, anything but serious.

Thus, director Joe Roth brings us "America's Sweethearts," a movie about the people who make movies, and one of this summer's most endearing comedies.

"Sweethearts" is about married screen idols Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose wildly successful movies together, including "The Bench" and "Sasha and the Optometrist," poke gentle fun at movie audiences through generally successful parody of the romantic comedy genre.

But the focus is on what happens behind the scenes, where all is not well between the stars. A year after Eddie and Gwen break up during filming of their last movie together, Gwen is living with another man (Hank Azaria) and a failing career while Eddie is still coping with a nervous breakdown brought on by the split.

Meanwhile, Gwen's long-suffering assistant, her sister Kiki (Julia Roberts), in a predictable twist that nevertheless works in the context of this movie, finds herself falling for Eddie.

A word to the wise: don't give up on this movie if it doesn't impress you right away. The first half-hour or so might not inspire much confidence, but trust us, it gets better.

In the movie's early scenes, one character after another turns in painfully overblown performances. Zeta-Jones as the manipulative prima donna, Roberts as the hopeless secret admirer, Azaria as perhaps the most ludicrously Spanish Spaniard ever to grace the silver screen -- again and again, their hyperbolic theatrics fail to entertain.

Even Cusack drops the understated formula that has been so successful for him in his earlier flicks in favor of such an exaggerated portrayal of a post-breakup nervous wreck that the audience is too embarrassed for him to laugh.

But after a while of the uncomfortable sensation that humor is being attempted and is falling flat, there comes a gradual shift. Suddenly these outrageous characters are endearing, and easily identified with to boot: who hasn't played Kiki or Eddie or both in some private melodrama?

Furthermore, either the actors get more comfortable with their roles as the movie progresses or we do; either way, after a while the performances seem a bit less overblown than they do for the first few minutes.

The quality of the comedy itself also picks up as "Sweethearts" progresses. The script moves on from rather tasteless sexual jokes to Capra-esque situational humor that relies on knowing the characters -- with plenty of well-written slapstick and one-liners thrown in for good measure.

All this alone would make a pretty good movie, not a top ten pick, but a decent movie. But there is even more here, and that's what shoves "America's Sweethearts" from mediocrity to greatness.

For starters, the cast brings together some of Hollywood's best talents. Cusack, Roberts and Billy Crystal (who also co-wrote and produced "Sweethearts") in one movie manage to make even the beginning of the film worth watching.

Roberts turns in a sharper performance than her standard as she finally gets a chance to lampoon the romantic comedy genre that has been her standby. The movie's ability to mock its own genre is the main means by which it rises above most other recent comedies.

Every aspect of the movie business makes it into "Sweethearts," from casting in-fights to production to meeting the press. Even the audience is laughed at -- and no one laughs harder than the audience.

Geoff Wessel can be reached

at vrooom@email.unc.edu.

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