'America's Sweethearts' leaves bitter taste

Hollywood loves to poke fun at itself, and sometimes real life lends a hand.

"America's Sweethearts" is a film-industry satire about a movie-star couple (John Cusack and Catherine Zeta-Jones) who pretend to be reconciling as a way of promoting their new picture. That must have seemed like a perfectly safe plot when Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan sat down to write the screenplay. How could they have known that a star of their own project, Julia Roberts, would be making tabloid headlines with her own romantic problems just as the movie reached the screen?

If the makers of "America's Sweethearts" were as cynical as some of the film's characters, they'd already be counting the extra tickets this coincidence might sell. But it would unfair to accuse real Hollywood players of being as duplicitous or ditsy as the stereotypes we see in this sadly uneven comedy. "America's Sweethearts" isn't sincere enough to be emotionally convincing, clever enough to be truly funny, or realistic enough to teach us a lesson or two about show business. In short, it's a misfire that all concerned - including moviegoers - should forget about as soon as possible.

The story lurches into motion when a prima-donna director (Christopher Walken) decides he won't let the studio see his just-completed film until he's ready to unveil it for the press. This means the picture's hard-working publicist (Crystal) has to build enthusiasm for it without knowing how good it is, or even what its content will be. To solve this awesome challenge, he cooks up a fake reconciliation between the movie's stars, Gwen and Eddie, slyly helped by Gwen's sister Kiki (Roberts), who works as Gwen's assistant and has her own big crush on Eddie.

While this plot is complicated enough to look interesting on paper, neither director Joe Roth nor the screenwriters have figured out a way to make it comic and comprehensible on screen. Roberts does wonders with her poorly written role, but her character is mysteriously absent for whole stretches of the story, and the climax - the long-awaited screening of the film within a film - has touches too far-fetched to believe even in a knockabout comedy.

Add some half-baked slapstick and a weakness for needlessly crude humor, and you have a would-be summer blockbuster that's destined for video-store shelves long before its time.

Rated PG-13; contains considerable amounts of sex-related humor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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