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"America's Sweethearts" boasts a dream cast but fails to deliver the romantic-comedy goods.

Great Expectations

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Leaving 'em wanting more is usually a fine marketing ploy. The only notable exceptions are frothy little romantic concoctions designed for carefree summer-movie audiences — movies like the new comedy "America's Sweethearts." But in this case, something fundamental is missing.

While watching "America's Sweethearts," you're only vaguely aware of wanting more. In the case of this love triangle set among Hollywood's best and brightest, it's not more romance that's needed. What it needs is more sting, more zing, more craziness and, yes indeed, more bitchiness.

Has there ever been a more calculated composite comic cast brought together to embrace, entice and engage all age levels? Oscar-winner Julia Roberts headlines an ensemble cast that puts OJ's Dream Team to shame. She plays Kiki, the put-upon personal assistant to one of Tinsel town's biggest stars and demanding divas, Gwen Harrison (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Adding to Kiki's misery, Gwen is not only her employer, but also her sister.

Complicating matters even more, Gwen happens to be half of Hollywood's hottest couple. Her on- and off-screen partner is Eddie Thomas (John Cusack). But, as they say in the movies, there's trouble in Paradise. It seems Gwen is furious about Eddie's latest attempt on her life, so she's taken up with her Spanish costar (Hank Azaria).

The screwball machinations certainly don't stop there. Tossed into the mix are also a whacko self-styled auteur (Christopher Walken, doing a dead-on impersonation of himself); a bottom-line bean counter of a studio boss (Stanley Tucci); and a fresh-faced PR flack too young to realize he's in way over his head (Seth Green).

What brings everyone's ego into a sure-fire collision course is a planned press junket for Eddie and Gwen's latest film, a sci-fi adventure called "Time Over Time." It doesn't take long for Tucci's studio head to recognize the James Cameron-sized disaster looming on the horizon. Swallowing his pride for the sake of a big box-office take, he recalls veteran flackster Lee Phillips (Billy Crystal), the man he just fired.

Now if you've seen the trailers for "America's Sweethearts," you would assume Roberts is the star. You would be wrong. In fact, "America's Sweethearts," co-written by Crystal (with "Analyze This" writer Peter Tolan), showcases Crystal's many gifts. And while those gifts are exceptionally funny, witty and perfectly timed, you can't help but feel cheated when the truth sets in.

If Crystal's flack can pull off the impossible — reuniting the glam couple during the press junket — "Time Over Time" might just become a hit. The first thing he does is enlist the help of Kiki, who's in the midst of her own metamorphosis, having shed 60 pounds. She's also nursing a well-kept secret crush on her brother-in-law.

All of this plays out in and around a remote Nevada desert casino, giving the goings-on a sort of upscale "Jerry Springer" feel. But while the premise is fresh and the actors more than up to the task, Crystal and Tolan ultimately let them down. The gags are often lame and far too obvious: When someone goes to the trouble of brewing some "serenity" tea, you can count on that someone nervously dropping the pot.

Instead of the true screwball lunacy such a setup could engender, Crystal and Tolan seem content to give us shallow characters and run-of-the-mill confrontations. Where's Gwen's truly outrageous behavior? Are we supposed to be satisfied with her refusal to allow anyone to smoke around her as an example of the depth of her insolence?

"America's Sweethearts" doesn't ask much of its stars; consequently, they don't take any risks or stretch their acting chops beyond what passes for mildly entertaining summer fare. Which is not to say that the movie does not have plenty of heart or humor. It does. It's just that the potential was there for "America's Sweethearts" to deliver so much more. Missed opportunities mount even as we fall victim to the momentary charms of the cast.

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