Opening Weekend: 'Valentine's Day'

This Hollywood valentine unfolds as a red-carpet collection of expanded cameos

Jennifer Garner and Ashton Kutcher in 'Valentine's Day'

I had to make a tough choice this week, between The Wolfman and Valentine’s Day—between gore and candy. There was just one advance screening for each film (usually not a good sign), and both were playing the same night. Although I try to approach this job with an open mind, I scouted the trailers, and the advance buzz. Neither picture looked hugely promising. Finally I chose Valentine’s Day—partly in the spirit of the season and partly because, if it did turn out to be mediocre, it has such an insanely star-rich cast that I figured it might be mediocre in an interesting way.

Building a movie around Valentine’s Day, the non-holiday everyone loves to hate, is a bit like building a restaurant menu around it. There’s no escaping the contrivance, or the pandering to cheap sentiment, no matter how you package it. The studio promo for Valentine’s Day boasts: “an all-star ensemble cast comes together.” But it doesn’t really. “All-star ensemble” is a usually an oxymoron. And this cast is more like an all-star assortment—a rom-com box of chocolates—because there’s not much ensemblin’ going on. If my arithmetic is correct, the plot has at at least nine couples in play, and that’s a load of romantic business to take care of. The female stars alone include: Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Taylor Swift, Kathy Bates, Queen Latifah and Shirley MacLaine. And they’re all so cute and frisky, as if every actor is on a mission to be adorable. There’s a lot of love flying around, but it’s largely between the stars and the camera—this valentine unfolds like a red-carpet collection of  expanded cameos.

The movie is not unentertaining. But it is unsatisfying. Garry Marshall, the sitcom veteran whose confections range from Pretty Woman to  Runaway Bride, wraps every scene with candied visuals and keeps the romantic traffic briskly moving.  If you don’t buy this little love affair, there’s another one just around the corner. The director is busier than a florist on Valentine’s Day—which, incidentally, is the role played by Ashton Kutcher, who anchors the narrative. With his casual charm and puppy-dog air of unaffected modesty,  Kutcher is actually one of the more likable things about the movie. His character kicks off the story as he prematurely pops the question to his sleepy-head girlfriend (Jessica Alba).  He then discovers that his best friend (Jennifer Garner), a school teacher, is being two-timed by a heartless heart surgeon (Patrick Dempsey), who is sending flowers to both her and his wife. That intrigue is the long-stemmed heart of the narrative. But surrounding it is a lavish arrangement of subplots.

An aspiring agent (Topher Grace) is dating a receptionist (Anne Hathaway), but doesn’t realize she’s moonlighting as a phone-sex operator. On a long-haul flight to L.A., a traveller (Bradley Cooper) flirts with his soldier seatmate (Julia Roberts) who’s coming home for one day to see a special someone. Singing sensation Taylor Swift makes her screen debut as a goofy ditz who’s crazy about her track star boyfriend (Twilight werewolf Taylor Lautner). Another teenage couple (Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins) are plotting to lose their virginity. Providing colour commentary is TV sports reporter (Jamie Foxx), who’s forced into Valentine’s Day coverage by his boss (Kathy Bates). On the sidelines are a washed-up quarterback (Eric Dane),  his diva-like agentrix (Queen Latifah) and his antic publicist (Jessica Biel), who’s dreading her annual “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party—a ritual that screenwriter Katherine Fugate apparently concocted in her own life. Oh, and let’s not forget the old folks (Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo) who find a crack in their perfect marathon marriage; or the insufferably cute fifth grader (Bryce Robinson) who is on a quest to buy flowers for his classroom crush. Crap happens. Someone will barge in on someone naked. And someone will turn out be gay.

The problem with the narrative, aside from its cumbersome arrangement, is that most of the scenes and situations are so broadly drawn, and so desperate to entertain, they don’t ring true.  Hathaway’s character actually does her phone-sex moonlighting at the office, from her open-concept cubicle. Yeah, sure. And the high-powered publicist played by Biel can’t even handle a phone call, never mind a star quarterback.

Amid the fakery, you take pleasure in the pretty faces, the gym-toned bodies, and in the spirited performances. The dizzying speed with which Anne Hathaway bolts out of bed and gets dressed for work while racing through a string of excuses for her new lover is exhilarating. And when Lautner trips over a hurdle and does a face-plant you don’t have to read the press notes to know that he did his own stunt. And his casting opposite Swift—Taylor meets Taylor—is a total stunt. At one point she asks him to take off his shirt, and he demurs out of modesty—which draws a laugh for anyone who’s seen his beefcake exposure in Twilight.

In the end, what’s  profoundly irritating about Valentine’s Day, which tries so hard to be the perfect date movie, is its cloying, relentlessly upbeat spirit. The dialogue dishes out Hallmark values with the hand-sanitizer zing of a dumbed-down Sex and the City. We learn that love is hard; you have to accept the whole package of a person, not just the good bits; the wisest thing is to fall in love with your best friend. And most of all, despite the Valentine’s Day mandate, you can’t force romance—one lesson that the filmmakers could take to heart.

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