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Screwball comedy 

By Ray Pride

After playing Adolf Eichman, Stanley Tucci needed a laugh. Working in London on Conspiracy, an HBO movie in which he played the Gestapo conspirator, he was grateful to get the script for America's Sweethearts. His would play a minor role in the film -- a slightly mad, completely plausible film studio head who must deal with a few small crises -- but the crises themselves were too good to pass up. An expensive new movie has not been delivered by its willful director (Christopher Walken), the on-and-off-screen lovers (John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones), who no longer speak, and the publicist who could present a smiling, lying face to the assembled press (Billy Crystal) has flown the coop as well.

Each performer in America's Sweethearts, much like actors living out a movie of themselves in the real world, plays a different sort of farce. As the press agent meant to suppress the erupting PR conflagration, Crystal is, well, the Crystalline form of his always-cynical self; as the no-longer-dynamic duo, Cusack is a heightened, blustering yet depressive version of his screen persona, and Zeta-Jones is the brittle, blissful diva. As her sister and assistant, Julia Roberts plays a once-obese, now-slim mouse-that-wants-to-roar. As Zeta-Jones' cartoonish new beau, Hank Azaria is in some Latin-accented otherworld. Walken is zonked as a caricature of the late, great 1970s director, Hal Ashby. And as the swaggering, shouting, modestly deranged studio head, Tucci dances a delicious line between capricious and malevolent.

"It is farcical. Let's face it, America's Sweethearts really is farce. Which is the hardest thing to do," Tucci claims. Plus it's a romantic comedy, making it even more difficult. "Yep. Incredibly complicated. To get the tone right, it's almost impossible."

Tucci's role offers the rare spectacle of a director, Joe Roth, who is the head of Revolution Studios, directing Tucci, who is a director as well, to play a studio head. Did any of his touches come from Roth? No, Tucci, insists. "He is such a nice guy, such a gentleman. I'm not just saying that because I know you'll write it! The guy is very smart." So as a director, are you both alike? Do either of you need to be screamers? "Oh, God no. I so don't believe in that. You get angry at certain points, you get sad at certain points, as in anything. But I can't stand that screaming stuff. A director has to create an enjoyable environment for people to work in."

The film throws together actors Roberts, Cusack, Zeta-Jones and Crystal, who have individually each made enormous names for themselves. Would he look for a challenge of mixing up all those styles of actors? "I don't think [it's a conflict] if everybody understands the script. In fact, I think it can be really interesting because all of the characters are distinctively different, which makes the casting ideal. Even though you're dealing with something that's kind of heightened, these [actors] are able to bring the characters to life in a very simple and naturalistic way."

In fact, Tucci tried something like that himself... "With The Impostors, yeah. Some people loved it, and some people hated it." But The Impostors announces itself as more buffoonish than this film. "But I love that stuff. And if it's done properly, and if everyone is in on the joke, it's fantastic."

Is this a film that might click with all audiences -- especially younger audiences? "I think a lot of people that age don't f--ing understand anything," the 41-year-old actor-writer-director says, "And you can quote me." He laughs. "But you know what I'm saying. They're so inundated with garbage that any joke that isn't about something that they watched on television last week is way over their head."

I wondered if Tucci, whose own films like Big Night and Joe Gould's Secret run counter to many veins of commercial filmmaking today, could make it as a studio head. Could he say "no" often enough? "Yes. Saying no is easy."

There is a scene in America's Sweethearts that boasts a priceless bit of performance, where the suggestion comes out that one of the characters be killed. Tucci's studio head considers the idea. Doesn't find it half bad. You can't tell if he's caught up in the helium of his own b.s., being ironic, or what. "That was actually Joe and [producer] Donna [Roth] and Billy, they loved that scene, as did I. It shows that real kind of darkness. You're not really quite sure whether that guy is serious. He's not even sure! He will do anything. You're dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars, you think, 'Okay, what's one life?' " He laughs.

"Hollywood engenders this kind of behavior, y'know. I've calmed down a little about things after 20 years. If one thing doesn't happen, another will come along. You start to relax. [But] these guys are operating on such a huge level. This desperation is Hollywood. Everything is the one-and-only-thing. You have to be very careful."

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