The Joke’s on Julia

Is Julia Roberts in trouble? For every Erin Brockovich , she turns out five banal turkeys that only her fan club can sit through. How long can this go on? You do the math.

Her latest fiasco, America’s Sweethearts , is a boring, brain-dead flop that takes a swing at temperamental movie stars and the nitwit journalists who stalk them at press junkets. Rampant with numbing clichés, it’s another reminder that Hollywood does a few things well and many things badly, but there is one thing it cannot do at all–make Hollywood movies about Hollywood. Robert Aldrich and Blake Edwards wrecked their careers trying, and although Robert Altman’s black comedy The Player came closer to bagging its targets than most attempts to satirize the greed, power and insanity of the film industry, the inside jokes overwhelmed the plot, with hit-and-miss results. You can name the great films about Hollywood on one hand (O.K., on three fingers): George Cukor’s A Star Is Born , Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard . Brilliantly written and directed, with historic performances, well-drawn characters and a sharply developed sense of time and setting, these films became memorable and timeless classics because they illuminated the shadowy illusions of Movieland with truth, wisdom, wit, irony and heart, instead of resentment, cruelty, condescension and anger. They also had the good sense to know why satire closes on Saturday night (if you don’t count Singin’ in the Rain ).

All of which brings me, once again, to Hollywood’s newest knuckleheaded self-parody, America’s Sweethearts . Any director who fritters away the importance of a box-office lure like Julia Roberts in a drearily miscast role and sadly diminishes Billy Crystal’s talents as both screenwriter and performer is not exactly protecting his assets. The director of this mess is Joe Roth, a mogul who ran both the Walt Disney and 20th Century Fox studios before hiring himself as the director of (cue trumpets) Revenge of the Nerds 2 ! He is living proof that executive experience in today’s Hollywood in no way qualifies you for membership in the Directors Guild. Whatever Mr. Roth’s skills might be, they do not include comedy; he has delivered America’s Sweethearts D.O.A.

Julia Roberts may wear the crown of America’s Sweetheart in real life, but her fans will be sorely confused by the charmless subsidiary role she plays here. The real stars in the title roles are gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones and vapid, poker-faced John Cusack as Gwen and Eddie, America’s favorite husband-and-wife team, who made millions in such blockbusters as Autumn with Greg and Peg and Sascha the Optometrist . Then, like Tom and Nicole (or Julia Roberts and everybody ), they broke up when Gwen fell for an oily Spanish actor (broadly overplayed by a lisping Hank Azaria). Since then, Gwen’s career has tanked and the neurotic Eddie has suffered a nervous breakdown and landed in a nuthouse. But they still have one last unreleased film in the can (literally), which is held hostage by a demented auteur director (Christopher Walken) who refuses to show the finished print to anyone before the press junket, scheduled for an isolated Hyatt hotel in the middle of the Arizona desert.

Billy Crystal is the veteran studio press agent who, to save his job, must reunite two stars who hate each other, stage a successful press weekend, unveil a movie nobody has ever seen and keep everyone out of jail. The head-scratcher is Julia Roberts, cast as Gwen’s unhappy, mousy, overweight sister and personal assistant, Kiki, who has always been secretly in love with Eddie herself. If you buy Julia as the shy understudy, a frustrated second-stringer and much-abused also-ran with horn-rimmed glasses, an eating disorder and a passive air of indentured servitude–and who can’t even get a man of her own–then I’ve got this AT&T stock I can sell you for 50 cents a share.

America’s Sweethearts keeps you going for a while as you dodge trite platitudes and wonder if anything genuinely funny will ever happen. It never does. Ms. Zeta-Jones has her moments as the narcissistic Gwen, who refuses to attend the press junket unless the water comes in a blue designer bottle and then registers at the hotel under the code name Holly Golightly. (“It’s so hard being someone people can’t get over,” she sighs, even though the press is so moronic nobody knows who Holly Golightly is.) Clearly, nobody connected with this movie has ever read Breakfast at Tiffany’s or seen a screwball farce by Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges or Frank Capra. The characters do dumb things out of neither passion nor cunning; they’re slugs, walking into walls.

Mr. Crystal’s lame script piles on the stereotypes and pokes fun at the world of self-absorbed movie stars, rampant egos, Hollywood paranoia, ridiculous juvenile values, and TV journalists who pop up at press junkets to criticize the lunch buffets and provide bogus raves for pull-quote ads. But it offers no fresh insights, provides no one-liners worth repeating, and robs the audience of any payoff. Since this is still a Julia Roberts movie, there is no suspense about who will run away with Eddie, and when the insane director finally arrives and the finished print of Gwen and Eddie’s long-awaited film is at last premiered, it’s so embarrassingly bad the press loves it, calling it The Blair Bitch Project . Nobody laughs, because nothing lands with a louder thud than Hollywood having a laugh at its own expense. By the end, you’re convinced Julia Roberts has lost her mind. I suggest you leave America’s Sweethearts early, before you lose yours.

Marlene Limbs and Farrah Hair

Having managed to successfully avoid the off-Broadway rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch for years, I don’t know why I dragged myself reluctantly to the film version. I guess I’m just one of those suckers who will endure anything as long as the projector keeps rolling. Hedwig is one of those cult things, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Plan Nine From Outer Space , that defies explanation. Written and directed by the undeniably talented John Cameron Mitchell, who plays and sings the leading role with more gusto than logic, it’s the choppy, lurid tale of a tortured transsexual from East Berlin who becomes a second-rate rock singer named Hedwig and grifts and hikes through the rancid landscape of America after midnight, stalking the rock star who done her wrong while searching for a true identity.

Born Hansel the year the Berlin Wall went up, the flamboyant Hedwig grows up listening to rock music on American Armed Forces radio, undergoes castration, marries a black soldier who transports her to America and dumps her in the middle of Kansas, then falls for a no-talent teenager who steals her songs and becomes a punk-rock icon–leaving Hedwig neither man nor woman, just a bitter and grotesquely painted mannequin with an angry inch-long scar where his or her penis used to be (hence the title). This pathetic tale is told in several styles that range from Dadaism to surrealism to follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-alongs. The rock score by Stephen Trask that dominates most of the film is loud and unbearable. The dizzying collage of bad music and pretentious visuals has the unwelcome effect of a stun gun, and the sentimental theme that has developed a rabid fan base (everyone just wants to be loved) left me yawning. What starts out as fairly good fun ends up nastily excessive.

In light of so many doubts, I must however add that John Cameron Mitchell is sympathetic and riveting throughout. Nobody else is up to his energy level (the other performances are zombiefied); with his dusty German lisp, his languid Marlene Dietrich limbs, his Farrah Fawcett hair and his Barbra Streisand nose, he’s better as an androgynous scene-stealer than as a first-time director. Maybe he found some special emotional and psychological resonances in Hedwig that have not transferred to the screen. It rocks and screeches; it’s part drag show, part music video. But whatever it is, it is not a movie.

A Chain Gang With a Green Thumb

With typical British élan, Greenfingers is a beautifully acted, meticulously straightforward and captivating film based on true events, about a group of convicts selected at random from England’s prison population to participate in an open-air experiment to teach them a trade that will prepare them for parole. What begins with violets in bad limestone soil inspires a new work-program of gardening. Some cynics look askance at putting forks, spades and shovels in the hands of murderers, but soon this team of five hardened louts, headed by Clive ( Croupier ) Owen and the delightful David ( Waking Ned Devine ) Kelly, are mooning over daffodils, germinating hollyhocks, and arguing over slugs and salty mold.

Creating beauty from dirt unleashes a talent these men from deprived, hardscrabble backgrounds never knew they had. With meager funds and little encouragement, their passion results in a garden of such splendor it attracts the attention and praise of the elegant, eccentric and celebrated professional horticulturist Georgina Woodhouse (a colorful, heartfelt performance by the great Helen Mirren). Ms. Woodhouse collects the five prisoners in her Rolls-Royce to help her design the luxurious gardens of a nearby estate and eventually sponsors them in the Royal Horticultural Society’s most prestigious flower show, where they compete against Great Britain’s gardening elitists at Hampton Court Palace.

Conflict appears when a robbery occurs at the manor house, the five convicts are suspected of stealing the owners’ blueprints, and the work-release program is suspended. But for the men, hope cannot be dashed. Working in the soil has rehabilitated them, bringing redemption in five different ways, teaching them the value of teamwork and friendship and changing their lives forever. By the time their efforts to beautify England land them an invitation to meet Her Majesty the Queen, you will find yourself cheering.

Greenfingers has texture, charm, joy and humor–a rare combination on today’s pessimistic film menu. It’s an exemplary movie that makes you feel good about the human condition and leaves you as proud and tall as a state-fair zinnia.