Don't let the ads fool you: Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack are not the stars of America's Sweethearts. It's Julia Roberts' show. It's a pity the film isn't completely built around Roberts, for only when she's on screen does it flicker to life.
Zeta-Jones and Cusack are Hollywood husband and wife Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas, who have won over the nation with their torrid on- and off-screen clinches. Gwen abruptly shatters this illusion by running off with Castilian wannabe actor Hector (Hank Azaria), driving Eddie into a nervous breakdown and her own career into the tank. After wacked-out director Hal Weidmann (an appropriately wild-looking Christopher Walken) snatches the only print of Gwen and Eddie's latest film, studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci, who pitches a good fit) pleads with publicist Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal) to reunite the dueling couple for an all-out press junket to promote the nonexistent movie. Lee enlists the help of Gwen's sister, assistant, and all-around doormat, Kiki (Roberts), who has issues with both her tyrant sis and muddled brother-in-law.
The film, written by Crystal and Peter Tolan (Analyze This), gets its best yuks (especially a hysterical cameo by Alan Arkin as Eddie's "wellness" guru) early. Sweethearts satirizes the shallow artifice of modern-day Hollywood movies and the frantic hypocrisy with which they are sold to the public. While this is certainly a timely topic--in light of the recent exposure of how Sony invented critical reaction to its films, as well as the fresh spate of movie-star breakups--the implications of all this image-manufacturing are addressed in only a fleeting, tabloidesque sort of way.
Not that comedies should be weighed down with Meaning, but some exposition, especially about Kiki, would have helped. Once Gwen, Eddie, and Kiki arrive for the all-important junket, the film slides into flatness, punctuated by bad crotch jokes and the supposedly breathtaking shocker of Roberts in a fat suit (more like a pudgy suit) in flashbacks. Crystal and Tolan add insult to that injury by having Azaria's narcissistic Hector speak in a horrendous lisping accent that borders on the offensive. An air of desperation settles around the film's weary conclusion.
Zeta-Jones and Cusack are troupers, but they can't surmount the foolishness of the material or the deadly touch of director (and former Disney and 20th-Century Fox studio chief) Joe Roth, who seems to have no sense of the kind of pacing a romantic comedy needs to work. Only Roberts' megawatt smile lifts the gloom--and not often enough.