"Valentine's Day", the new film from director Garry Marshall ("Pretty Woman") owes much of it's inspiration to the far superior "Love, Actually", written and directed by Richard Curtis. Both films, set around emotionally charged holidays, depict the loves won and lost by a series of couples. In "Love, Actually", the film features an amazing who's who of British actors, most of whom can carry their own films, delivering funny, insightful, romantic and dramatic portrayals of people who are in love and most are confused by it. Most of the characters in "Love, Actually" could be the subject of their own films. "Valentine's Day" takes the same formula (even throwing in a pivotal scene at LAX to match the first film's scenes at Heathrow) but the acting caliber isn't as good. Neither is the writing and directing for that matter. With a star-studded roster of talent playing the various characters, we are still left with a hollow, empty feeling. None of the
In a film with so many recognizable names, it is difficult to say one or two of these people are the stars, but Reed Bennet played by Ashton Kutcher interacts with a fair number of the other actors, making him one of the more central characters. Reed owns a high-end flower shop and delivers pricey bouquets with his employee (George Lopez) when he isn't helping with the customers flowing into his shop. But Reed isn't simply a defacto Cupid; he is in love and proposes to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba) as soon as she wakes up on Valentine's Day. Later, Alex, a young boy arrives and wants flowers delivered to his teacher (Jennifer Garner) who just happens to be Reed's best friend. A little later, a doctor (Patrick Dempsey) arrives and wants to have flowers delivered to both his girlfriend (Garner) and his wife. Reed becomes worried and decides he has to tell Garner about her boyfriend's indiscretions. Jessica Biel plays a PR Agent, whose client, a football quarterback (Eric Dane), now a free agent, is trying to create some buzz and keep his career afloat. They turn to his agent, Paula (Queen Latifah) for help. She is working with a new temp secretary (Anne Hathaway) who makes the majority of her living doing phone sex in a variety of different voices. She has recently started dating a guy who works in the mailroom (Topher Grace). Things are going well, but she wants to keep her secondary job a secret. Meanwhile, Julia Roberts has fallen asleep on a plane, traveling home to Los Angeles, her head lying against the stranger, Bradley Cooper, in the seat next to her. When she wakes up, they begin to talk and flirt a little, and he learns she is traveling fourteen hours to spend one day with her loved one before traveling fourteen hours back to her military post. And Alex's grandparents (Hector Elizando and Shirley MacLaine) aren't sure how to provide his teenaged babysitter with the advice she needs, she is planning on having sex for the first time with her boyfriend, but things go very wrong. As the two teenagers deal with the news of their impending intercourse traveling among their circle of friends, their two closest friends, played by real-life couple Taylor Lautner ("Twilight") and Taylor Swift, also give them their two cents worth.
I will give the film some credit; as you sit and watch the film, you are never bored. The narrative moves back and forth between the various couplings so fast it would be impossible to be bored. But are these stories particularly well-written or even all that engaging? Not really. Unfortunately, most quickly devolve into bits of pure slapstick or feature over-the-top performances, making them little more believable than an episode of "Two and a Half Men".
Certain characters work better than others and these characters make their stories more successful. Ashton Kutcher is pretty good as Reed. He has the most screen time and he doesn't seem to waste a minute. He proposes to his girlfriend with a unique proposal, runs off to work and interacts with his co-worker, played by George Lopez. At work, he is, naturally, very busy as he is a florist trying to maintain control of his shop on Valentine's Day. Later, he has to figure out how to deal with the news he learns about his best friend's (Jennifer Garner) relationship and tries to make good on his promise to the 10 year old who wanders into his shop and wants to have some roses delivered to his teacher (also Garner). Throughout this chaotic day, Kutcher maintains a relatively low key performance, given the nature of his character and what we usually get from Kutcher.
Jennifer Garner is also good as the young teacher who feels she has finally found true love. Later, when she learns the truth, we feel her pain. Given how quickly these moments happen, it is a testament to the actress' skill that we are able to follow along with her.
I also liked the budding relationship between Topher Grace and Anne Hathaway. We pick up their relationship the morning after the first time they sleep together. They seem to be a normal, young, healthy couple. Throughout the day, we learn they both work at the same agency, in entry level positions and we learn a 'funny' secret about Hathaway's character. Frankly, her secondary job isn't all that funny or interesting and it seems included to shock us into laughs when we hear her say scandalous things or use a funny accent to play a character for one of her clients. When Topher learns it is Valentine's Day, he decides to invite her on a real date at a restaurant. Their date provides some genuine comedy that would make this story become the most memorable. But the phone sex thing interferes again and returns as the main focal point of this story, making it seem like little more than a situation comedy.
In fact, this is the overriding problem with "Valentine's Day". Every time the filmmakers begin to approach anything genuinely funny or touching, the story and situation take a turn for the worse, ruining anything we have already seen.
Jessica Biel's character hates the very thought of Valentine's Day and hosts an I Hate Valentine's Day party for her friends. Naturally, because she is so bitter, she will find love, in this case in the form of Jamie Foxx's character, a struggling Sports reporter assigned by his boss (Kathy Bates) to do a puff piece on Valentine's Day. Her party is set at an Indian restaurant where a wedding is also being held. Naturally, as Biel's party gets a little more outrageous, Marshall begins to cut to reactions of the shocked Indian guests. Har, har!
Patrick Dempsey's doctor initially appears charming when he gives his girlfriend, Garner, a cute little trinket for Valentine's Day. But his character quickly reveals his true self and has nowhere to go from there. Why does he keep playing these thankless, one-note characters?
So why does "Love, Actually" work so much better? We spend longer periods with each of the couples before moving on. Each couple has a specific purpose to the story and, in some cases, a specific aspect of love to portray. Oh, let's face it. The main reason "Actually" works so much better is that the actors are so much better. Heads and shoulder above their American counterparts. Skyscrapers above their counterparts.
Marshall isn't intent to just keep the story moving, flashing from one couple to the next and back again. He also has to make sure we run the entire gamut of emotions throughout the day. Therefore, some moments are so saccharin and sweet, others are meant to be slapstick, others just plain sweet. Some cute and others sexy. But because the actors are a mixed bag, they can't keep up with this changing pace and everything begins to resemble a bouquet of flowers that has been sitting in a vase for too long.