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Treacle Down Theory

An old-fashioned romantic comedy, America's Sweethearts could have used a dash of salt to offset the sugar shock; The Score squanders two giant talents.

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America's Sweethearts is too "inside" for its own good. Or maybe the problem is that it isn't "inside" enough. It's a comedy about Hollywood, made by experienced Hollywood hands, that is both harmlessly cynical and deeply fatuous. Catherine Zeta-Jones is Gwen Harrison, a screen diva separated for more than a year from her moody, still-in-love co-star actor husband Eddie Thomas, played by John Cusack. Billy Crystal's Lee Phillips is the studio press agent whose job it is to reunite these two for the press junket for their new, long-delayed movie and have them pretend they're a happy couple. (Crystal co-wrote the script with Peter Tolan.) The reason for the pretense is that the studio's boss, played by Stanley Tucci, thinks the public needs to believe that Gwen and Eddie remain in love in order for their film to be a hit. Right away, the premise is shaky: In the cold and cruel real world, it's more likely that audiences would flock to a movie starring two lovebirds notoriously on the outs.

The Cinderella of the piece is Julia Roberts's Kiki, Gwen's sister and overworked personal assistant, who wears untrendy glasses and unteased hair and not much makeup and recently dropped 60 pounds. In other words, she is, by Hollywood standards, a "real" person. If she kept the 60 pounds she'd probably be even realer, although, in flashback, fat Kiki looks so grotesque she might as well be made out of papier-mâché. As Kiki and Eddie's longtime friendship deepens into serious cuddliness, the glitz circus that surrounds them becomes more and more frenetic. You can see what was intended. Director Joe Roth, the former Walt Disney Studios chief who formed Revolution Studios last year, wants to create a Preston Sturges-style jamboree, with all kinds of characters high and low bellowing and acting badly. But for that to work, you need Sturges's dialogue and crack timing and stock company. America's Sweethearts is too eager to please to be truly dislikable, and Roberts and Cusack have a fine rapport. Nearly everyone else, however, seems to be overplaying in the upper registers or, like Crystal, underplaying to the point of blahness. Zeta-Jones, with her ripe, old-fashioned movie-star presence, is good casting for Gwen, but calling her role one-note would be generous; Tucci, stomping and yowling in what, I suppose, would be the William Demarest role in a Sturges movie, gives the only bad performance I've ever seen from him; Hank Azaria, playing Gwen's Latin lover, has some funny dialect line readings -- he pronounces "junket" as "hunket" -- which stop being funny about the eighth time he repeats them.

America's Sweethearts is too sweet: It converts all the bile and backstabbing of the studio system into a fairy-tale romp, but you can sense its real juices lie elsewhere. That's why the film seems so flimsy; the Hollywood pros who made this movie are backing off from the down-and-dirty of what they know of their business. A movie flaunting that knowledge might really have energized them. In its place is a standard-issue fantasy about how the little people shall prevail. Even the scenes centering on the press hunket are tame, compared with the buffet-gorging, star-stroking, and P.R.-gouging that really goes on. A documentary of the real junket for this movie would no doubt be more fun than the movie itself.

In happier movie times, The Score, di-rected by Frank Oz, would have been triumphally advertised as the first film to pair Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. In even happier times, that pairing might actually have amounted to something. Instead, what we have here is an okay caper movie with noirish pretensions, and the great Brando, who appears in movies once in a very blue moon, tickles us with a teaser of a performance lasting no more than about 25 minutes of screen time. Having witnessed similar tours of Brando duty in The Island of Dr. Moreau and Don Juan DeMarco, I'm not sure I have it in me to rant yet again about what a deprivation it is for our finest actor to deny us his genius in this way. And I don't care how heavy he is. (Heft never held back Charles Laughton, let alone Raymond Burr.) I guess we should all be grateful that Brando reversed his decision to play the exorcist in Scary Movie 2, thereby sparing us the sight of him straining mightily on the john and throwing up gales of pea soup. (The honor, instead, went to James Woods by default.) But what is truly dispiriting about The Score is that, in his scenes with De Niro -- the actor who, early in his career, seemed the most likely to be the new Brando -- neither player rises to any great heights. Not even close. You can't blame them, exactly. The roles don't support greatness, and both men, I suppose, are creditable. (Brando brings a fey, courtly grace to his cameo.) But why didn't Brando and De Niro choose a movie that would truly challenge them? Is it because they feel like they've already had their trials by fire and can now afford to cool out? They cool out, we grow incensed.

De Niro plays Nick Wells, an expert thief who owns a Montreal jazz club. Brando's Max is Nick's longtime financial partner and fence who convinces him to pair up with Jack Teller (Edward Norton), an ambitious crook who's figured out a way to nab a jeweled French coronation scepter from the storage lockup at the Montreal Customs House. There's the usual tired stuff about how the older crook just wants to make one last score, how he never takes long shots, how he always works alone except for this one time (uh oh!), and how he's doing it all for the love of a good woman (Angela Bassett, playing a flight attendant who, oddly enough, given her job, is not also an accomplice). The robbery is capably shot, but you've seen it all before, and that goes for just about everything else, right down to the double and triple crosses; even the rain slicking the night streets seems recycled. The only novel note is that Jack Teller, working as a custodian at the Customs House, pretends to be neurologically damaged and simpleminded, but he looks and sounds so much like Pee-wee Herman that the ruse is unintentionally risible. Is this some sort of nasty joke at the expense of French-Canadians? The film seems to be saying, Who else would be stupid enough not to see through this guy?

America's Sweethearts
Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack, and Julia Roberts.
The Score
Starring Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando.


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