20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 72

Vanity fare

Mark Steyn

Areaders may know, I'm a big fan of Billy Crystal. He jokes, he sings, he dances, he's the last working guy in Hollywood who believes in pre-ironic showbiz. But America's Sweethearts is a terrible movie, the pits. It's suffused in smugness. Not the casual arrogance of, say, a Rat Pack caper like Robin and the Seven Hoods, where a few buddies have got together to slough off a movie in a weekend: that kind of thing can have its own endearingly slapdash pally indifference. The vanity that reeks from every frame of America's Sweethearts is systemic, cultural: when it tries to be funny, it's shrill; when it wants to be tender, it's pompous; when it strains to be sharp, it's woefully dull. In its writing, casting and directing, it's a monument to a bloated, self-regarding, tone-deaf Hollywood. Given that the film is supposed to be a comedy about Hollywood, this is, to say the least, unfortunate.

Crystal wrote America's Sweethearts with Peter Tolan (of The Larry Sanders Show) as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the zany madcap mayhem of Hollywood. The sweethearts of the title are a couple of married stars who've made film after film together. There's an irascible studio boss and a wise-guy matchmaking press agent and an oleaginous Latin lover. This is a savagely accurate portrait of Tinseltown — Tinseltown circa 1935, that is. But for some mysterious reason Crystal and Tolan

seem to think this is how Hollywood functions in 2001. The overall effect is a bit like watching one of the daffier opera productions where The Magic Flute or II Trovatore is set in a post-nuclear wasteland or Thatcher's Britain. Even the fake filmography they've concocted for their sweethearts sounds determinedly antiquated — a sports weepie called Requiem for an Outfielder, etc. As for married couples making movies, generally speaking the public doesn't mind stars falling in love during a shoot but has no desire to see them onscreen as mister and missus — witness Tom and Nicole in Eyes Wide Shut. Crystal and Tolan have a couple of nods to the present day — one half of the sweethearts (John Cusack) has checked into a rehab clinic; the insane director (Christopher Walken) has bought the Unabomber's cabin and had it moved from Montana to his Beverly Hills backyard so he can edit his film in 'solitude' — but these contemporary touches are so few they feel the most out of place.

As an insiders' insider, Crystal has been able to corral an A-list cast into signing on: Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cusack's icy wife, Julia Roberts as her frumpy sister and gofer, Stanley Tucci as the studio boss, Alan Arkin as a 'wellness guide'. These stars are pressed into service for the slenderest of plots — the fate of the studio depends on Cusack and ZetaJones's latest and deeply troubled production. You may recognise this premise: it's the same as that of Singin' in the Rain, a Hollywood comedy about Hollywood that also features onscreen lovers whose offscreen relationship is a bust. Unlike Singin', America's Sweethearts doesn't have songs or dances (except for a delightful tap burst from Christopher Walken) but nor does it have the sassy confidence of Betty Comden and Adolph Green's peerless script. (The fake titles are better, too: when The Dueling Cavalier, has to be hastily transformed into a musical talkie, Donald O'Connor suggests The Dueling Mammy.) By contrast, Crystal and Tolan never seem sure what they're selling: Inside dish? A little. Screwball comedy? We would if we could. Satire? Well, a teensyweensy bit to show we're good sports but God forbid we should get into saying anything about the state of contemporary movie-making. We're not talking The Big Knife IL Indeed, the film comes close to demanding that we applaud these famous stars for being willing to send up even ever so gently their own fame. Why, here's Julia Roberts playing a sweet, lovable girl-next-door type who becomes a big start Self-imitation is the sincerest form of self-flattery.

Billy Crystal should know better than this. But, playing the conniving press-agent (a role that would be more fun if the movie weren't so craven even in its treatment of movie critics), he can't hide his own need to be loved. After doing a little Mister Saturday Night shtick for an unimpressed waitress, he shrugs, 'No laugh, no tip.' Funny. But we're paying. The laugh's on him. And, lurching from one disconnected scene to another before getting to one of the lamest endings of any comedy ever, he fails us big time. Joe Roth directs but you wouldn't know it. so comprehensive is his disregard for any kind of comedic propulsion. Thank you and goodnight, sweethearts.