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A tad too sweet

Billy Crystal isn't someone who bites the hand feeding him. A little nibble, maybe some gumming, but nothing drawing blood.

Crystal is a mensch, which makes him both popular and the wrong person to steer a Hollywood spoof like America's Sweethearts. Crystal co-wrote the screenplay, produced it and saved the best one-liners for himself, playing a studio press agent handling a backstage crisis.

The setting offers a fresh perspective: It's one of those movie junkets where studios seduce positive publicity from reporters enjoying an all-expenses-paid weekend with barely tolerant celebrities.

True story: Several years ago, one such reviewer brought his curtains from home to a junket to take advantage of the free dry cleaning offered at the hotel. Another truth: America's Sweethearts doesn't contain a single gag as outrageous about junket journalism. Or anything new about movie star egos, for that matter.

There's no room for diplomacy in satire, especially with such ripe material. Viewers get the feeling that Crystal is always pulling his punches, perhaps because he's chummy with everyone in the biz. He has to work with these people, you know.

As a romantic comedy, America's Sweethearts is as charming as any Julia Roberts flick. She plays Kiki Harrison, publicist and gofer for her glamorous sister Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Gwen is unhappily married to another actor, Eddie Thomas (John Cusack), and having an affair with her Spanish co-star, Hector (Hank Azaria, doing a wicked Antonio Banderas routine).

Gwen and Eddie are heading for divorce, but fans don't want them to break up. Neither does the high-strung producer of their latest movie (Stanley Tucci), who needs a hit. Actually, he needs a movie; his eccentric director (Christopher Walken) is hiding the master print. The producer begs veteran press agent Lee Phillips (Crystal) to construct a junket around a movie that reviewers may not see, with stars who certainly don't see eye to eye.

When Kiki falls in love with Eddie, the inside humor of America's Sweethearts falls apart. Something has to be sacrificed in a 100-minute movie, and it certainly won't be Julia's big kiss. Which creates a huge problem for director Joe Roth: making audiences swoon over people who haven't behaved attractively. Eddie is a mope, Gwen rhymes with witch, Hector is a fool, and Kiki is a doormat. It takes more than casting to make love in the movies.

The result is an uneven movie that can't decide whether to sneer or coo. Crystal and co-writer Peter Tolan sprinkle the script with knowing jests about depressed celebrities seeking spiritual guidance and about perks for friendly reviewers. Then they toss in a tenderly glib exchange to satisfy the When Harry Met Sally crowd. They're making the same kind of movie Crystal's character is selling, a neat package of personality.

Roberts is appealing as usual, but this role isn't a snug fit. Kiki is supposed to be a frump, even after losing 60 pounds. The fat-suit flashbacks aren't convincing, and the new Kiki doesn't seem interesting enough to attract Eddie. Roberts gamely plays meek until the wallflower blooms. Zeta-Jones is sharp as an underwritten prima donna, and Cusack's hesitant sexiness is a plus.

The pulse of America's Sweethearts, however, is found in the supporting roles. Crystal is smart to downplay his key role in ads after a string of flops and a hiatus. This performance is a winning return. Tucci's focus and timing are always a treat. Walken and Alan Arkin as Eddie's "wellness guide" get laughs just by appearing, and then their lines kick in.

But you only need to read Entertainment Weekly to see what satirical opportunities Crystal and Tolan missed, if only through bad timing. Gift bags and free accommodations are just part of the scandal with celebrity hype. The movie was finished before some recent bombshells about folks who sell us entertainment.

Columbia Pictures _ the studio behind America's Sweethearts _ was caught fabricating quotes from a non-existent movie critic and using employees for testimonial ads. An influential publicist, Lizzie Grubman, was arrested this month, accused of driving her vehicle into a crowd of people outside a New York nightclub because she was told not to park in a fire lane. You can't make up stories like that. At least Crystal and Tolan could try.

Review

America's Sweethearts

Grade B

Director: Joe Roth

Cast: Julia Roberts, John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Crystal, Hank Azaria, Stanley Tucci, Christopher Walken, Seth Green, Alan Arkin

Screenplay: Billy Crystal, Peter Tolan

Rating: PG-13; profanity, crude humor, sexual situations

Running time: 100 min.

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