Think of what happens when you inflate a balloon to near bursting, then let the air whoosh out as you release it. The sucker blasts off like a drunken rocket, emitting rude, flatulent noises before collapsing into a heap of limp rubber. That will give you an idea of what it's like to watch America's Sweethearts, an all-star party balloon of a movie that flares briefly with satirical promise before pooping out. Meant as a romantic-comedy alternative to creature features such as Jurassic Park III and Planet of the Apes, America's Sweethearts is a balloon, all right — a lead one.
Most of the sparks in this bonfire of Hollywood inanities emanate from the actors. Catherine Zeta-Jones is gorgeously bitchy as Gwen, a diva whose success is based exclusively on her films with movie-star husband Eddie, played by the ever-sly John Cusack. But when Gwen starts shtupping a lisping Spaniard named Hector (Hank Azaria, in a role originally intended for Robert Downey Jr. before his latest drug troubles), the whole Tom-and-Nicole career thing goes bust with the marriage. Larry King insults Gwen on his TV show. "I'd like to strangle him with those suspenders," says Gwen, who gets so paranoid she believes infants in strollers are "judging me."
Sadly, the comic barbs in the script by Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan quickly lose their edge. While Gwen distracts herself with Hector — she enjoys poking his butt with the toe of her high-heeled dominatrix boot — Eddie suffers a mental meltdown, no thanks to his wellness guide, played by Alan Arkin, whose advice ("Life is a cookie") is decidedly Gumpish. This is old-hat stuff, including Eddie trying to run down Hector and Gwen with his motorcycle.
Peter Lee (Crystal, better here as actor than screenwriter), the publicist for the upcoming Gwen and Eddie movie, Time Over Time, a sci-fi epic directed by a Kubrick-like recluse named Hal — shades of 2001 — and played with nutso brio by Christopher Walken. Hal has driven studio chief Kingman (Stanley Tucci — is this a great cast, or what?) to a near coronary by giving him access to only the film's opening credits. Hal announces that Kingman and everybody else will see Time Over Time for the first time at the press junket — a gathering of print and TV journalists selected for their ability to throw softball questions in exchange for being wined and dined on the studio's dime. It's up to Lee to get Gwen and Eddie to fake a reconciliation for the press without killing each other in the process. But where to hold the junket? "I need something remote, like in The Shining," Lee tells his flunky Danny (Seth Green, not given nearly enough to do). A Hyatt Regency resort in the desert outside Las Vegas is chosen. But when Hector shows up to goad Eddie into a fight by calling him Pussy Boy, even the junket whores smell a story.
Hey, I can hear you asking, isn't Julia Roberts in this movie? Well, yes and no. Roberts plays Kiki, Gwen's sister and lackey, a former fatty who recently dropped sixty pounds but can't lose her crush on Eddie. In a few unconvincing flashbacks, we see Roberts in a chubby suit and glasses, pining for Eddie. Roberts, who practically played the Gwen role in 1999's Notting Hill, clearly wanted to lay back this time; she's the real person in this nest of media vipers. Nice idea, lousy execution. Roberts doesn't star in this movie; it's more like she visits it. Nobody notices her star-shine or megawatt smile. We're not supposed to notice, either.
America's Sweethearts is chockablock with things we're not supposed to notice: that Roberts is wasted; that she and Cusack have no characters to play, so it's virtually impossible to understand why she loves him or vice versa; that the script provides comedy without bite and romance without resonance; that even the trailers for The Player, State and Main, Bowfinger and Roberts' own Notting Hill offer more skewering insights into Hollywood than this film does in its entirety; that director Joe Roth, the former chief at Disney who quit to run his own company (Revolution Studios), hasn't directed a film since 1990's Coupe de Ville, and his rustiness shows; that crudeness is damagingly indulged, which reminds us that Roth also directed 1987's Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise; and that the first two releases from Revolution — Tomcats and The Animal — are vile juvenilia. Maybe that explains the scenes in America's Sweethearts in which Lee gets his balls licked by a Doberman, in which Gwen disparages Hector's dick as "a roll of quarters," in which Hector repeatedly pronounces "junket" as hunket, in which security cameras appear to catch Eddie jerking off while watching Gwen in her pool. "He gave himself a big hand," a news report announces. Maybe lines like that explain why Roberts put herself on the sidelines of this unhappy accident. Maybe you should do the same.