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Hollywood inspects its navel

Every once in a while, it occurs to folks in Hollywood, in their pursuit of the absurd, that there are few things more absurd than Hollywood itself, so Joe Roth, former Disney chief and current head of Revolution Studios, decided in returning after a decade-long absence from directing, to make a movie about movie-making. “America’s Sweethearts” is what he came up with and, frankly, if not a searing look at just how ridiculous Hollywood can be, the movie’s a thoroughly entertaining piece of summer fluff.

Billy Crystal and Peter Tolan did the screenplay (they also wrote the very funny “Analyze This”), with Crystal taking a key role in the film as a publicity director who’s got to pull some really hot chestnuts from the fire in order to get his job back. Studio head Dave Kingman (Stanley Tucci) has just found out on the eve of a massive press junket for the premiere of this $86 million new film, that the temperamental diva of a director (Christopher Walken) isn’t going to let anyone see the movie until the press junket. (Shades of Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Cimino and Stanley Kubrick – Walken is very funny indeed doing his diva bit.)

Now the film is bringing together again “America’s Sweethearts,” – Gwen Harrison and Eddie Thomas: Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack. The only problem is the film’s co-stars are not really America’s sweethearts any more. Far from it. In fact they hate each other. He’s being treated by a wellness guru: Alan Arkin, a delicious mix of Deepak Chopra and J. Krishnamurti, on screen for much too short a time. She’s in a full-fledged romance with a Spanish leading man (Hank Azaria) and is eager to hand hubby his divorce papers.

Lee, who has handled the couple’s last six movies, is the man to make sure the press junket doesn’t turn into a major scandal blowout. Fortunately, Lee has, he thinks, a surefire backup: Kiki, Gwen’s mousy assistant and all-suffering sister. With Julia Roberts as Kiki, there’s a limit to how mousy Julia Roberts can ever be, but she clearly has a dandy time playing second fiddle to ever-demanding sister Gwen.

Lee’s first move is to get the junket billeted in a hotel in the middle of the Nevada desert. And then he has to get his pair of ex-lovebirds to make nice for the press. Eddie, while thinking maybe he’s feeling his love returning for Gwen, suddenly begins to realize sister Kiki – who’s lost 60 pounds since he last saw her – is not just a warm, kind-hearted soul, but is definitely appealing. (Roberts, in a couple of flashbacks in a fat suit, looks surprisingly just right – a little overweight, dowdy and, yes, definitely mousy. Just right for a woman living in the shadow of a glamorous sister.)

Bring in Hector, the Spanish lover – who’s quite entertaining the first few half dozen times he mispronounces “junket” as “hunket” in a heavy Hispanic accent – who turns up to create a big fight scene in the hotel restaurant with Eddie (to the delight of the press as well as the studio head and Lee). The fight makes the evening news.

Eddie discovers he really loves Kiki, and not her egotistical sister Gwen. The diva director arrives via helicopter, straight from his Beverly Hills’ mansion, with cans of film he’s been editing … in Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s cabin he’s bought from the government. The preview audience loved that touch.

From here on in, you can almost write the rest of the film yourself except you know Hollywood would never let a press junket pan a major studio movie and the press is treated pretty gently. Now, if you’ve ever been on a movie junket or covered a film festival where hundreds of journalists pose the most idiotic questions, dazzled out of their wits by the sheer presence of real-life movie stars, then you’d see with just what kid gloves Messrs. Roth, Crystal and Tolan handle the press folk in their movie.

As some kind of a gesture in the direction of showing how hard-hitting the press can really be, Larry King is brought on to pepper Catherine Zeta-Jones with some tough, embarrassing questions. We’ve all seen what a pussy cat Mr. King is with any celebs he gets on his show, haven’t we?

But listen – Julia Roberts is very endearing and Billy Crystal turns in a script and performance matching his Academy Award master-of-ceremony duties. Nobody’s really bad. So it’s fluff, so what? You’ll have a good time seeing it, which is more than I can say for most of the movies out there this summer.