All of New Line Cinema’s careful planning has not been wasted on Douglas Young (“the-movie-guy”), an IMDb user who begins his review of “Valentine’s Day” with: “What timing! The producers are releasing ‘Valentine’s Day’ two days before the real event.” Yes! What a brilliant maneuver! Those producers are crafty — CRAFTY LIKE A FOX THAT PUTS OUT HOLIDAY-THEMED MOVIES AT THE APPROPRIATE TIME OF YEAR!
For the easily impressed, “Valentine’s Day” is indeed impressive. It boasts a huge cast of recognizable actors, most of them named either Taylor or Jessica, all playing Los Angelinos whose romantic lives intersect on the sacred holiday. And in just 125 minutes — or approximately two minutes per character — something like a thousand stories are told. Granted, each story by itself is drearily generic and uninspired, and the cumulative effect is that of watching 10 romantic comedies in one sitting. But still, in terms of sheer quantity … well, “Love, Actually” was a lot better. But in terms of sheer quantity where rip-offs of “Love, Actually” are concerned, “Valentine’s Day” is probably not absolutely as bad as it could have been!
The screenplay was written by Katherine Fugate (“The Prince & Me”), with rewrites by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, the duo behind “Never Been Kissed” and “He’s Just Not That Into You.” And the director is Garry Marshall, of “Pretty Woman” and “Runaway Bride” and “The Other Sister” and “The Princess Diaries” and “Raising Helen” and “Georgia Rule” and “Dear God” and wow Garry Marshall has made a lot of bad movies. That’s not to say I prejudged “Valentine’s Day” — every movie has a chance of being good — only that when it turned out to be broad, unfunny, tiresome, overlong, and pointless, well, I wasn’t surprised. Those adjectives all appear on Garry Marshall’s business card.
Our central character, at least in terms of screen time, is Reed (Ashton Kutcher), a florist who has just proposed to his girlfriend, Morley (Jessica Alba). Everyone is surprised she said yes, though, leading us to believe she is not right for him. Reed’s lady friend Julia (Jennifer Garner), who is totally platonic and they are definitely not in love with each other, is certainly skeptical. Meanwhile, Julia is seeing a cardiologist (Patrick Dempsey) who, unbeknownst to her, is married with children. We see the doctor at home for a couple minutes, long enough for his daughter to ask if he “fixed all the broken hearts” today, and for his wife to observe, as he tosses some oranges around, that “Daddy is good at juggling.” Ha ha! Feel the blunt force trauma as the joke is hammered in to your skull!
But we’ll never get through this if we stop to make fun of everyone individually. Jason (Topher Grace), who works in the mailroom at a talent agency, has been dating a coworker named Liz (Anne Hathaway), who secretly moonlights as a phone-sex operator, generally with a Russian accent (because Russian accents are funny). She conducts these calls from her cell phone, often while standing on the sidewalk — not because any person would ever actually do this, but so Marshall can show us passersby being alarmed and surprised by her dirty talk.
Sorry, sidetracked again. Sean Jackson (Eric Dane) is an NFL star who has just become a free agent, both professionally and romantically. His publicist, Kara (Jessica Biel), is holding her annual I Hate Valentine’s Day dinner tonight and spending the day sobbing, because that’s what women do when they’re alone on Valentine’s Day, ha ha, those emotional retards. Sean’s brassy agent — Liz and Jason’s boss — is Queen Latifah, so she’s not interested in love. Neither is Kelvin Moore (Jamie Foxx), a TV sports reporter who’s being forced to do a fluffy Valentine’s Day story when he’d rather be covering the Sean Jackson thing. Kelvin’s boss is played by Kathy Bates. There will come a time late in the film when you will say, “Hey, didn’t Kathy Bates used to be in this movie?” And it will have been so.
Wait! There are even more characters! On an airplane bound for L.A. are Holden (Bradley Cooper) and Kate (Julia Roberts), strangers seated next to each other, Kate coming home from Iraq for a one-day leave, Holden being vague about what his deal is. Then there’s an old couple named Edgar and Estelle (Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine) who take care of their 10-year-old grandson, Edison (Bryce Robinson), who has a crush on a girl in his class. We later learn that Estelle used to be a movie actress, and in fact appeared in “Hot Spell,” which is a real movie that Shirley MacLaine was really in, and we see footage of it. So either Edgar married Shirley MacLaine and she changed her name to Estelle, or Estelle just happens to look like MacLaine and also happened to star in a movie with the same title as one of MacLaine’s movies.
And there are teenagers! Alex (Carter Jenkins) and Grace (Emma Roberts) are thinking about doin’ it, sex-wise, in honor of Valentine’s Day. Their friends Willy (Taylor Lautner) and Felicia (Taylor Swift) have no such plans, and in fact serve even less purpose in the movie than everyone else does, though I admit I laughed a few times at Swift’s ditzy, scatterbrained character.
Which brings me to my point. After Kelvin abandons his fluffy Valentine’s Day story, his cameraman takes over (what? Why?) and interviews Willy and Felicia as a typical high-school couple. When they’ve finished blathering shallowly about why they love each other, the guy says, “Ah, young love. Full of promise, full of hope, ignorant of reality.” That gets a big laugh, but guess what — it describes every other character in the movie, too. The teenagers’ dialogue might be heavier on the words “like” and “awesome,” but their attitudes toward romance are no more naive than anyone else’s. If there was supposed to be some kind of contrast between the teens and the adults — you know, the ones who become emotional basket cases on Feb. 14, or who refuse to believe their boyfriends are already married, or who propose to girlfriends who have clearly lost interest in them — well, no such contrast emerged.
No, everyone’s pretty much the same here: one-dimensional, composed only of whatever character traits are needed to propel their hackneyed subplots. Most of their problems are the sort that could be fixed with one conversation. They do the things people in romantic comedies do — sprints through airports, lavish but ill-fated romantic gestures, etc. — but rarely the things actual people do.
There is also the matter of Garry Marshall’s directorial style. The only thing even approaching “subtlety” in his work is when something happens for absolutely no reason and you think, “Wait, what was that all about?” (Let’s pretend that being subtle and being incompetent are the same thing.) For example, when Sean Jackson the football player holds a press conference, there is a sign-language interpreter present. There are several shots of her. Clearly she’s going to figure in to a joke or something. But no — nothing ever comes of it. Was the sign-language gag deleted? If so, why not delete her altogether? When good directors make movies, they don’t keep shots that present unnecessary information, much less an entire unnecessary character.
Earlier, Sean is watching TV, then turns it off and tosses the remote control on his bed. Cut to a close-up of the remote control. In the grammar of film, a close-up like that indicates something important. We’re going to need to know where the remote control wound up. But again, no. There’s no reason for it. Just a random, unnecessary shot. And there are several more instances of this sort of thing scattered throughout the movie — random people and things that serve no purpose, not even as amusing tangents. If filmmaking is a language, then Garry Marshall has a stutter. You can make out what he’s saying, but it’s clumsy and embarrassing. And in this case, what he’s saying didn’t need to be said anyway.
(Note: Valentine’s Day is a Monday in this movie, so it must be set in 2011. I believe this technically makes it science fiction.)
D (2 hrs., 5 min.; )