It used to be the case that a movie named after a holiday was a horror flick of the slasher variety. Now thanks to Garry Marshall, they’re merely horrible movies, episodic romantic comedies that are clumsily written, sloppily directed and populated by casts composed of actors and actresses happy to pick up a check for stopping briefly by the shoot and reciting some inane dialogue in a few scenes that could later be shuffled with others into Marshall’s excuse for a feature. His first effort in the genre was “Valentine’s Day,” and now New Year’s gets the same treatment. Given the number holidays awaiting Marshall’s leaden hand, one shudders at the possibilities.
For right now, however, “New Year’s Day” is quite enough—and quite bad enough. The episodes center around the famous descent of the celebratory Times Square ball. The one that ties everything together involves Claire (Hilary Swank). the woman who’s heading the operation who, with the assistant of faithful security cop Brendan (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), has to set things right when the device fails to fall properly, requiring the call-back of the forcibly retired electrician who long presided over the event, Kominsky (Marshall regular Hector Elizondo).
Meanwhile Claire awaits the arrival of the famous rocker Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi) she’s hired to sing on the televised bash, while he’s trying to reconnect with Laura (Katherine Heigl), his former girlfriend who’s now the chief caterer to the party associated with the celebration. Then there’s Sam (Josh Duhamel), the son of the owner of the company hosting the party, who has to rush back to the city after crashing his car in the boondocks and hitching a ride in an RV with the local pastor’s family. He has an “Affair to Remember”-style arrangement to meet a woman he’d encountered exactly one year earlier. And there’s Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer), a secretary with the company, tired of her life, who hires Paul (Zac Efron), an eager young messenger to help her fulfill a sheet-full of resolutions before the night is out.
But that’s not all. Teen Hailey (Abigail Breslin) wants to go to Times Square with her high school heartthrob, but her mom Kim (Sarah Jessica Parker) won’t allow it. Holiday hater Randy (Ashton Kutcher) is trapped in a stalled elevator with Elise (Lea Michele). a gorgeous young woman who’s one of the rocker’s back-up singers. Two couples (Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel, Til Schweiger and Sarah Paulson) vie to deliver their babies first to claim a big New Year’s prize. And terminal hospital patient Stan (Robert De Niro) at the same hospital begs his doctor (Cary Elwes) and nurse (Halle Berry) to take him to the roof so he can watch ball descend.
Writer Katherine Fugate and editor Michael Tronick manage to juggle all these plot threads competently enough; the problem is that they’re not worth following. The combination of cheap humor and sappy sentiment is all too pat, and when the script tosses in a few twists at the close, they’re utterly arbitrary. The characters are so cardboard that to call them stock sitcom types would be an insult to situation comedy. And of course the actors playing them have little choice but to play them in the broadest strokes. Marshall’s decision to add to the army of players by dropping in cameos from the likes of John Lithgow, Jim Belushi, his own sister Penny and Parker’s hubby Matthew Broderick merely turns the movie further into a dreary exercise in spotting familiar faces.
Technically “New Year’s Eve” is adequate, though the digitally-enhanced crowd scenes in Times Square that melding found and new footage aren’t always terribly convincing. Those sequences feature one especially irritating element, though: among the numerous marquees on display is an advertisement that’s prominently featured over and over again—for another upcoming release from Warner Brothers, the “Sherlock Holmes” sequel. To have Robert Downey’s huge face repeatedly thrust into your face is corporate crassness of the worst sort—the only thing worse would be subliminal messages.
But the sad part is that Marshall lost the chance to top off the movie with one genuinely good joke. If he’d had each Times Square sign and marquee digitally replaced with a blurb for a bunch of Warner Brothers movies, he would have sent up the whole wretched practice. It wouldn’t have saved his movie, but it would have shown that he had a smidgen of the old “Old Couple” spark left.