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" america's sweethearts " has an intriguing premise and a great cast , but it isn't nearly as edgy or funny as it should be .
almost all the problems with the project can be traced back to co-script writer billy crystal , who shows the same lack of discipline with the screenplay that he typically displays while co-hosting " comic relief " charity shows with robin williams and whoopi goldberg ( two other paragons of self-indulgence ) .
crystal ignores a simple , but crucial , rule : for a screwball comedy to work , the characters must be placed into a rigid social setting , because only in that context will their unorthodox antics be humorous .
" america's sweethearts " takes place at a press junket , where decorum must be maintained in front of the reporters .
it's a promising set-up , but the screenplay quickly blows off the rules , thus dissipating the tension of the situation .
by the end of the film , all the lead performers participate in a huge fight with a room full of journalists looking on , but their outbursts are only mildly amusing because the structure has been destroyed .
john cusack and catherine zeta-jones play eddie thomas and gwen harrison , a beloved acting duo whose marriage hit the skids when gwen began seeing hector ( hank azaria ) , a spanish actor with an ego almost as pronounced as his lisp .
of the last nine films eddie and gwen made together , six crossed the $100 million mark , but the prospects for their final effort , a space opus titled " time over time , " are far from rosy .
while eddie has spent many months in a new age rest clinic fretting over the breakup , gwen's solo films have tanked .
to make matter worse , the director of the movie ( christopher walken ) , a " visionary " who purchased the unabomber's cabin and had it moved to his backyard , is withholding the film from the studio , insisting that the first screening be held at the junket .
desperate to win over the press , the studio elects to hire lee ( billy crystal ) , a recently fired publicist , to salvage the situation .
lee hopes to turn lemons into lemonade by convincing eddie and gwen to pretend to be on the road to reconciliation .
he enlists the help of kiki ( julia roberts ) , gwen's sister , personal assistant and whipping girl .
what lee doesn't know is that kiki is in love with eddie , a fact that could temper her effectiveness .
press junkets are a haven for control freaks .
studios fly journalists in from around the world and put them up in a plush hotel , with food and drink always at hand .
generally , on the evening of their arrival , writers are bussed to see the featured film , then ferreted straight back to the hotel .
the next day , writers go to the studio suites and assemble in groups of five or six for roundtable interviews .
every 30 minutes or so , a producer , director , writer or actor is brought into the room for a few minutes of questions , with a publicist hovering in the corner to keep an eye on things .
the atmosphere is one of cordial oppression ? writers are free to ask what they want , but understand that if the studio dislikes a question , they may not be invited to future junkets .
representatives from tv stations face even more restrictions .
they get roughly five minutes to interview each member of the cast and crew , with the studio filming the exchanges .
the " reporters " are notorious for tossing softball questions as they suck up to the stars , but to play it safe , the studios stand ready to erase the tapes if anything unpleasant occurs .
placing two spoiled actors in a setting where image is everything is inspired , but the screenplay undermines the conceit .
the junket is moved from the handsome , but highly confining , four seasons hotel to a plush resort near las vegas .
for most of the film , the movie stars run around the sprawling grounds , completely safe from the eyes of the press .
when they do deal with journalists , the " it is imperative that you be on your best behavior in front of the reporters " premise is de-clawed .
gwen and eddie insult each other while the tv cameras roll , they scream at each other in a restaurant filled with the media and , at the screening of the movie , everyone connected with the film goes nuts , all without any repercussions .
lee certainly isn't bothered by any of the infantile outbursts ; in fact , he makes arrangements for footage of even more inappropriate behavior to be delivered to the tabloids .
is the studio angry about his handling of the combative actors ?
hell no ? they feel lee is a genius for garnering so much publicity for the movie .
all of which underscores how billy crystal and co-writer peter tolan screwed up their own premise : the comedy in " america's sweethearts " is based on barely-in-control people trying to contain themselves in the presence of reporters , except that it doesn't matter because any publicity is good publicity .
and thus the very set-up for the film implodes , leaving smoke and dust in place of laughter .
so what about the cast ?
julia roberts , at her best playing the underdog , is utterly charming here , although i could have lived without flashbacks that exist solely as an excuse to show her in a fat suit ( and not a very convincing one , by the way ) .
catherine zeta-jones makes a believable brat and john cusack fleshes out his obsessed character enough to make him vaguely sympathetic .
by casting himself as the publicist , billy crystal allows himself to do roughly the same thing he does on " comic relief " - stay on the sidelines of the action while tossing off cornball jokes and snarky remarks .
in supporting roles , hank azaria wears out his welcome fast with broad gestures and a spanish accent that speedy gonzales would have deemed " too broad . "
seth green is amusing as a toadie , stanley tucci is very good as a ruthless studio head and christopher walken plays the eccentric director with suitable flair , though he has little to work with .
come to think of it , " little to work with " is the operative phrase for this movie .
as a hollywood satire , " america's sweethearts " is toothless .
as a romance , it is at best a minor pleasure .
such a good cast , such a waste of their efforts .
had it not been taken long ago , a better title for the film would have been " much ado about nothing . "