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In America's Sweethearts, stars play stars playing stars--and so what?

The 2001 summer-film project from America's sweetheart--that's Ms. Roberts to you Oscars abstainers--concerns troubled movie-star lovers who pretend the marriage is on again to sell their new film. And there was Roberts's famous mug on the cover of People a few weeks ago, headlined something like: "Julia and Benjamin: What Went Wrong?" A publicist couldn't have timed it better, and probably one did. If you think I'm too cynical, don't go see America's Sweethearts, which is "about" nothing so much as the industry-manipulated relationship between movie stars and their celebrated personas.

The "sweethearts" of the title are on- and offscreen lovers Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison, who--we learn via a clever Billy Crystal-at-the-Oscars montage--together made nine popular movies, six of which did more than $100 million apiece. The film's sweethearts are also Catherine Zeta-Jones (Gwen), John Cusack (Eddie), Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal. In other words, almost all the actors are playing (off) their famous celebrity selves. The script, penned by Crystal and Peter Tolan, ceaselessly refers to the celluloid pasts of Zeta-Jones, etc., the artificiality of this stars-playing-stars plot, and Hollywood mythology in general. America's Sweethearts would screen best as an interactive video, where viewers could click on "more cute Julia temper tantrums" or "other movies where Cusack wears an overcoat while stalking an ex."

In an unsubtle gesture against type, Roberts at first provides a supporting turn as Gwen's sister and longtime (and long-suffering) personal assistant Kiki. Once 60 pounds heavier (Roberts wears a "fat suit" for flashbacks), Kiki has slimmed to wand thinness, which makes Gwen nervous. Then again, everything--from distant cigarette smoke to doing anything for herself--makes Gwen nervous. She is the purest hothouse diva--as removed from non-celebrity life, in fact, as the character Julia Roberts played in Notting Hill (the character who bore a strong resemblance to Julia Roberts).

Everybody's famous! John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julia Roberts in America's Sweethearts
Everybody's famous! John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Julia Roberts in America's Sweethearts

Gwen has accomplished one thing on her own: She left Eddie for a "Spaniard" with a highly exaggerated Barthelona lisp, courtesy of Hank Azaria. (Could the hunk's nationality have anything to do with that of Ms. Zeta-Jones's sexy co-star in her breakout Hollywood film? Of course it could.) "The whole world is judging me," whines Gwen, "for what I did to Eddie." When Kiki acknowledges that Gwen's "whole Miss Adorable thing" has taken a beating, she could be talking about her own Miss Adorable thing in the wake of Kiefer Sutherland, Lyle Lovett, or even Benjamin Bratt. It's as if Zeta-Jones is enacting the Julia Roberts celebrity persona, while Roberts plays the non-public Julia, a plain shadow of the fascinating creature under the lights.

Even after she gets out of the fat suit, Julia's star shine is strangely dimmed. Beside the sleek and curvy Zeta-Jones, Roberts appears emaciated and pale. (Yes, there is a bulimia joke.) Crystal and director Joe Roth like to show Gwen and Eddie in private, discontented and, in Cusack's case, not looking especially attractive, followed quickly by a public performance of sparkly, charismatic glow. What the public sees is always a construction, America's Sweethearts stresses; it's not real. Okay--and the point is?

There's a lot of scorn floating around here for the easily managed media and the pathetically enchanted audience. Crystal, as movie publicist Lee, arranges to distract a junket full of critics with luxury bags and jewelry: Give them enough cocktails, he notes, and they won't notice the absence of the movie they're supposed to write about. Of her fans, Gwen sneers: "I just want to scream at people, 'Get a life!'" At the same time, both Lee and Gwen are paranoiac panderers, afraid that the stroking hand will suddenly slap.

Gwen isn't supposed to be likable, obviously: The audience is supposed to identify with Roberts, and eventually Cusack. Because they're playing the "real" people. But it's funny: The more "real" they're meant to grow through the movie, the more they act the way Julia Roberts and John Cusack always act. Roberts starts out (unbelievably?) patient and dependent, smoothing rough waters with Kiki's calm. Soon enough, she's cracking sardonic grins and pitching laser-sharp putdowns. It's a kick to see Cusack strut (in leather pants, but still with that overcoat--talk about body shame!) as an arrogant, insecure movie star. Before long, though, he's answering bullshit junket questions with quirky sarcasm and spouting confusedly earnest spiels. ("Click here to view the 'product' speech from Say Anything.")

Because America's Sweethearts is a farce, and not one on the level of, say, The Player, Kiki and Eddie haven't been written with distinctive identities. (Crystal and Tolan apparently spent most of their time thinking up dick jokes.) So it's down to the respective mythologies of Roberts and Cusack to make the audience care about Eddie and Kiki. The movie both wants to ridicule those mythologies (they aren't real!) and to use them to manipulate the viewer (they are real!). In the end, mockery wins out. From Roberts's patented tearful rant to Cusack's special beer-bottle grip, the actors' iconic gestures here seem so empty, one wants to scream, "Get a life!"

Perhaps that's the point. Perhaps Crystal, who also produced, intended to create a movie that leaves the viewer exhausted with self-replicating movie stars and movies about movie stars. (Did I mention that there's another movie about movie stars within this movie about movie stars?) Certainly, I couldn't care less right now about Julia Roberts's meta-narrative and whether or not, per this latest chapter, the "real" actor Julia is confidently emerging (with Oscar) while her sweetheart celebrity stardom falls away like an unsatisfying old lover. On a grimmer note, this former Cusack fan is disheartened to find the actor again reenacting his greatest hit. But hey, as my companion noted, this time he gets to kiss Julia Roberts. And if you can't be a big movie star, you can at least play one in a movie.

I did laugh during America's Sweethearts. Zeta-Jones is adorably bitchy. Crystal gives himself some witty lines. The pop-music soundtrack is horrible. (I had to laugh!) Christopher Walken does another sterling horror turn. Characters get hit by golf balls, doors, and drink trays. (Say what you will about the director of Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise: Joe Roth can stage a helluva golf-ball stunt.) Some things are funny even if you've seen them 1,000 times. Click here to see them for the 1,001st.

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