*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C-
starring Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John Cusack
screenplay by Billy Crystal & Peter Tolan
directed by Joe Roth
**/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B
starring Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis
screenplay by Karen McCullah Lutz & Kirsten Smith, based on the novel by Amanda Brown
directed by Robert Luketic
by Bill Chambers This week, two of last summer's comedies, Legally Blonde and America's Sweethearts, transfer their competition to the video store. Neither film has a high-concept that's fruitful--they're both pitches without a paddle buoyed only by star power. I'll take the former over the latter, however, because America's Sweethearts is a shrill, lumpy stinker that sends up the movie business so vapidly it's like a parody of Hollywood satires. Legally Blonde is watchable, at least, and you don't have to suffer through the de facto Miss America, Julia Roberts, pretending as though she's blending in with the furniture.
The America's Sweethearts of the title are feuding marrieds and frequent co-stars Eddie Thomas (John Cusack) and Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones). With obsessive director Hal Weidman (Christopher Walken) holding Time Over Time, Eddie and Gwen's final project together, hostage from the studio, refusing to screen it before the press junket even for the chief exec (Stanley Tucci), plans are hatched to stage a reunion of the would-be Cruise and Kidman at said junket. This, to deflect attention from a film vulnerable to bad buzz and, it is hoped, restore Gwen's approval rating, since her non-Eddie ventures have tanked at the box office--moviegoers perceive her as the villain, Eddie's betrayer.
Roberts's "Kiki" is the contemptible Gwen's sister/assistant, a woman who used to weigh 60 pounds more than she does here. Eddie, to whom she's "always looked great," finds his feelings swaying towards Kiki at the junket just as Gwen is entertaining a reconciliation. Billy Crystal plays the über-publicist with a conscience he can turn on and off like a faucet, counseling the troika of Eddie, Gwen, and Kiki on the one hand and leaking their secrets to media outlets on the other. America's Sweethearts, as you can probably tell, has a swell cast misappropriated. Today's American Sweethearts are, I would argue, Tom Hanks and, well, Roberts: bathetic Billy Crystal should be paralleling Hanks and Roberts caricaturing herself, unless she's afraid to gamble again after subverting her image in Notting Hill and coming out on top. Though I admit it might be hard to accept Crystal and Roberts as husband and wife, it's not exactly an easy task to swallow the thought of worldly Jones with the erstwhile Lloyd Dobler. (High Fidelity pointedly demonstrated it would never work out between them.) Cusack, too prickly to be a national sweetheart on- or off-camera, would've made a great grifting publicist, what with that deflective, rapid-fire patter of his.
In our reimagining, that leaves Zeta-Jones in the range-busting role of Kiki--one of these days, she should try something other than sultry and manipulative. (To be frank, it's also easier to imagine her as a former fatty.) Beyond the issues of ensemble, what's wrong with America's Sweethearts is almost everything else: phoney and laughless mock clips (fake movie titles, fake movies, fake Larry King segments...they'd all be funnier if they were written and performed with some degree of wisdom--instead of exposing industry artifice, they too often simply point to the filmmakers' hostility); the notion that any film might be in jeopardy of bad reviews from the junket crowd, a.k.a. the quote whores (little surprise that America's Sweethearts distributor Sony engineered the David Manning stunt); the purported budget of $86 million for Time Over Time, which, for a sci-fi period piece starring the country's top couple and helmed by a three-time Oscar winner, seems preposterously low when one considers that America's Sweethearts itself cost $48M; and Roberts, in a first-billed supporting role (!), getting the glamour lighting and winning unsuspecting hearts with a coy batting of the eyelashes. Her Cinderella complex becomes less endearing the more money and Academy Awards she amasses.
Unlike America's Sweethearts, which gives the false impression of peeling back the curtain on Hollywood tactics, Legally Blonde has nary a hint of pretense (and it would be counter-productive to hate a film that equates gaining knowledge with fun), though it shows how California Barbies have corrupted the popular image of "blonde" from Marilyn Monroe's iconic example. Reese Witherspoon wears a lot of pink as Elle Woods, a sorority girl whose infinite supply of goodwill helps her stay afloat when she transfers to Harvard Law School. Elle's there to win back her ex (Matt Davis), a smarmy aspiring politician from a family of senators (Davis claims that he read a biography of George W. Bush to prepare); he pictures himself with "a Jackie, not a Marilyn." (Ironically.) Never underestimate a blonde, or women in general, the film says, and Elle is nothing short of Wonder Woman--it's each moment's purpose to demonstrate her golden perfection. Legally Blonde was a sleeper success, which looks to transform Witherspoon's career as an indie darling. If we're not careful, we could create another Roberts, but for now, she deserves her day in the sun.
I found the level of detail on Columbia TriStar's DVD release of America's Sweethearts astonishing and the lack of compression artifacts even more so considering that 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and full-frame transfers share the same side of a dual-layered disc. The yellowed hues of Phedon Papamichael's cinematography can get a bit overbearing but saturation and contrast levels remain in check throughout. While the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix soars exclusively during Eddie's motorcycle siege on one of Gwen's romantic evenings, it's bouncy enough. Director Joe Roth (also the head of the company that put America's Sweethearts into production) optionally introduces five deleted scenes (anamorphically mastered!) no better or worse than any in the finished film. Of interest: Roth mentions that the eccentric Weidman is based as much on Hal Ashby as he is on Kubrick. Trailers for America's Sweethearts, The Mask of Zorro, and My Best Friend's Wedding round out the disc.
Legally Blonde's DVD, a Special Edition, features (2.35:1, 16x9-enhanced) widescreen and pan-and-scan versions together on one side as well. Colours really pop no matter your viewing choice, and they're a distraction, really. An excellent presentation nonetheless--I especially appreciated the rich texture of the autumn leaves that pepper the east coast exteriors. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is professional though unmemorable.
MGM's disc is a DVD-14, meaning a flipper that's half-dual layer/half-single layer. The majority of Legally Blonde's extras are on the non-movie side (and given a running time of 53 minutes). The film sports a pair of solid, screen-specific commentaries, the first a group session with a mum Witherspoon, director Robert Luketic, and producer Marc Platt, the second a bifurcated yak-track that begins with DP Anthony B. Richmond, editor Sophie de Rakoff Carbonell, production designer Melissa Stewart, and animal trainer Sue Chipperton and ends with screenwriters Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Highlight: Lutz and Smith reveal that their most significant alteration to the source material might have been turning the book's love interest into the film's villain! A "trivia track" of amusing, vacuous arcana (a list of "Famous Male Blondes," for instance) additionally augments the Legally Blonde experience.
Flip the platter and you'll find: eight insubstantial deleted scenes (again set-up by the director); the making-of "Inside Legally Blonde" (20 mins.), which is unexpectedly substantial until the interviewed (Luketic, Platt, novelist Amanda Brown, et al) start to kiss Reese's butt; "The Hair that Ate Hollywood" (8 mins.), a sincere documentary on the unsung work of the production's hair stylists (a running gag in Legally Blonde is Witherspoon's ever-changing coif); trailers for Legally Blonde and The Princess Bride's SE DVD; and the music video for Hoku's theme song "Perfect Day," a grating bit of earworm. Originally published: November 12, 2001.