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Put John Cusack, Billy Crystal, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Christopher Walken all in the same movie, and you should have one incredible comedy.

Unfortunately, the behind-the-scenes talent on America’s Sweethearts is lacking and the end result is a romantic comedy with precious little romance and a sense of humor that ranges from the very clever to the very crude.

There’s something about Kiki…

Cusack and Jones: America's SweetheartsAmerica’s Sweethearts tells the tale of Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Traffic) and Eddie Thomas (John Cusack, High Fidelity), America’s favorite celebrity couple. They’ve made the same formulaic movie over and over and over again, and the hungry public just keeps eating it up.

On screen, they’re soul mates. In reality, however, Gwen is an egotistical bitch, a manipulator, and a player. Eddie’s a good-natured, sincere young man and just doesn’t seem to belong with such a mess of a woman. He deserves better.

But, unfortunately for the whole world, Gwen and Eddie’s romance hits the rocks when Gwen hooks up with Hector (Hank Azaria, Mystery Men). Hector’s a “hot” Latin actor conspicuously reminiscent of Antonio Banderas. Azaria, on the other hand, is woefully miscast and strains desperately to be a hot Latin actor even remotely reminiscent of Antonio Banderas.

Enter Lee (Billy Crystal, Deconstructing Harry). He’s a publicist put in charge of bringing the couple back together (at least for the media) and also for promoting a movie which nobody’s seen, the final pairing of Eddie and Gwen in an $86 million romantic science-fiction epic entitled Time Over Time. It’s directed by the legendary beer-bellied, reclusive, Oscar-winning Hal Weidmann (Christopher Walken, Blast from the Past).

Thankfully, he finds better in the person of Gwen’s sister, Kiki (Julia Roberts, The Mexican). Kiki’s recently lost 60 pounds, or, as Crystal’s character wittily notes, “You’ve lost a whole Backstreet Boy!”

But that romance is so lukewarm and mousy it becomes just a minor story in service to a louder one, that of fabricating Eddie and Gwen’s reunion in order to sell a non-existent movie. It probably sounds hilarious in Hollywood, but will anybody in Peoria care? Not likely.

Hollywood Babble On

One of the problems with watching movies about movies is that, much of the time, you feel like you’re watching a bunch of actors winking at each other and cracking inside jokes. If you don’t read Daily Variety or The Hollywood Reporter, some of those jabs will be lost on you. Thank goodness folks in the Cineramadome will be laughing their heads off.

The screenplay was written by Crystal and Peter Tolan. Individually, they’re responsible for such nuggets as Forget Paris, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, What Planet Are You From? and Bedazzled. Together, they’ve created a schizophrenic comedy that doesn’t know what it wants to be.

As directed by Joe Roth, the one-time Head Mouseketeer at Disney, it would seem the movie has a bone to pick with Hollywood. Unfortunately, the execution is so bad that this dog has no bite. Maybe Roth is just rusty. This is his first directorial effort (behind the cameras, that is) since Coupe de Ville in 1990. Remember that one?

When all the pieces of the puzzle are finally pulled together for the premier of Time Over Time, the film starts to sink in its own preposterousness. It’s then that the possibility finally raises its ugly head: Is the lack of romance in this “romantic comedy” the film’s biggest joke? Is the director trying to pull a bait and switch on an unsuspecting public?

With the movie’s stellar cast, it’s sure to draw audiences initially. But it’s sad to think that a far better romantic comedy revolving around the movie industry, Entropy, with a high quality, but below-the-title cast, never even got a theatrical release.

True, America’s Sweethearts has some good laughs along the way. In particular, there’s a great sight gag involving a hostile dog and a window cleaner. But there’s just not enough good stuff to make a memorable movie. In fact, portions of the movie feel sloppy.

For example, Alan Arkin plays Eddie’s “Svengali” in a rehab center. He is supposed to be deadpan and philosophical. Instead, you see Arkin fighting a smile… and then finally his smile breaks through. Yeah, it’s great for actors to have fun while making a movie, but takes such as that should have been left to the gag reel over the end credits. Arkin was out of character and another take was in order.

You look maaahvelous!

For all the wattage the stars bring with them, and in a movie that strives to present the main couple as “glamorous,” nobody looks great. Zeta-Jones is wearing too much makeup, and Julia Roberts actually looks better in the prosthetic suit that helped her gain 60 pounds for some flashback scenes.

That can all be blamed on the mediocre cinematography. As for Azaria, he becomes virtually unbearable during the course of the movie. His overly thick (and bad) Spanish accent was amusing for a couple minutes, but then it grew stale and annoying. Azaria was woefully miscast; it seemed as though the screen dimmed every time he entered the picture.

Ironically enough, one of the DJs from the local radio station that sponsored the screening coached the audience to whoop it up since critics were in attendance. As if critics need people laughing around them to realize they’ve just seen something funny? Well, maybe so. During one of the numerous jokes about Hector’s “family jewels,” a male in the row behind me could be heard to say, “I love this movie!”

Take it, Dude, it’s yours.