When a movie is advertised as coming from the director of a picture that’s thirty years old, you might think he’s a painstakingly slow artist returning after a long absence. But no; it’s Garry Marshall, who’s made scads of pictures since “Pretty Woman,” the movie in question. It’s just that none of them have been particularly good, and some (“Exit to Eden,” “Dear God”) have been absolutely awful. As is “Valentine’s Day.”
This is an attempt to do an American variant of the sort of anthology romantic comedy the British have recently had success with—just think of “Love Actually” relocated to Los Angeles on February 14. The central figure, insofar as there is one, is Reed Bennett (Ashton Kutcher), a florist who begins the day by proposing to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba). He’s also best buds with schoolteacher Julia (Jennifer Garner), who thinks that her current squeeze, doctor Harrison (Patrick Dempsey), might prove the real deal. One of Julia’s students, cute little Edison (Bryce Robinson), visits Reed’s shop to order a delivery to a girl he has a crush on, while his grandparents Estelle (Shirley MacLaine) and Edgar (Hector Elizondo), with whom he lives, run into some romantic difficulty with secrets from their past. Meanwhile his babysitter Grace (Emma Roberts) plans to have first sex with her gangly, nervous boyfriend Alex (Carter Jenkins), while their friends, jock Willy (Taylor Lautner) and dancer Felicia (Taylor Swift), plan to have fun too.
That’s not all. There’s aging pro quarterback Sean (Eric Dane), who’s the subject of retirement speculation that brings ambitious TV sportscaster Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) to talk to his agent Kara (Jessica Biel), a loveless Valentine’s-hater who’s also a close friend of Julia. Kelvin also tries to connect with Sean’s publicist Paula (Queen Latifah), whose temp secretary is Liz (Anne Hathaway), who moonlights as a phone-sex specialist, something that her klutzy new boyfriend Jason (Topher Grace) finds unsettling.
Who else is there? Well, Kathy Bates shows up as Kelvin’s producer, and George Lopez as Reed’s partner, a happily married guy whose delivery truck is rear-ended by Sean. And last but not least, there’s an apparently tangential episode set on a plane headed for L.A., where hunk Holden (Bradley Cooper) shares an aisle with Kate (Julia Roberts), an army captain on a very short leave from combat to visit somebody. Who might it be? And whom might Holden be flying home to? The answers are about as close as the movie gets to having any surprises to offer.
Mostly, though, “Valentine’s Day” goes pretty much just where you’d expect. It follows the old Oscar Wilde dictum that the good end happily and the bad unhappily (everybody gets a partner of sorts save the two characters who deserve to be alone). It’s like a bunch of episodes from that lousy old ABC anthology series, “Love, American Style,” squished together.
As one might expect of a picture with such a large cast of luminaries, it would appear that most of the cast showed up for only brief periods and filmed their scenes quickly, without much rehearsal or direction from Marshall, who seems to have been happy with a lot of first takes. The nonchalant approach does no service to anybody in the cast, though some (Kutcher, Hathaway, the elder Roberts) fare better than others. MacLaine, however, is embarrassing, and Marshall’s laissez-faire attitude is especially cruel to the kids. Robinson’s line readings are more stilted than what expects to encounter on Nickelodeon—a really low standard—and Emma Roberts and Jenkins are trapped in some poor slapstick. But it’s Swift, who’s encouraged to act like a total airhead, who proves the worst, and Lautner isn’t appreciably better. Maybe if Marshall hadn’t just turned on the camera and told them to act goofy…
I suppose one has to give a certain degree of credit to editor Bruce Green just for stitching all the threads together reasonably well, though the habit of using shots of L.A. landmarks as transitional devices gets very tiresome. Otherwise the picture is technically subpar; Charles Minsky’s camerawork is bland, the production design (Albert Brenner) and art direction (Adrian Gorton) nondescript, and John Debney’s score irritatingly bubbly.
The one positive thing you can say about “Valentine’s Day” is that it’s better than Nia Vardalos’ atrocious “I Hate Valentine’s Day” of last year. But not by much; in fact, at certain points you might be moved to wish that the picture would turn into “My Bloody Valentine,” axe and all. Whack! And Garry—have you ever considered retirement? Your best work, the TV “Odd Couple”—an improvement on Billy Wilder’s film—was a long time ago. Maybe it’s time to rest on your laurels. Please think it over.