Set in Los Angeles on February 14th, Valentine's Day features at least a dozen big names and nearly as many interwoven story lines. It's an American Love Actually, or better yet, a girly Crash without the guns and pretensions. Its vast ensemble cast includes four Oscar winners: Kathy Bates, Jamie Foxx, Shirley MacLaine and Julia Roberts. The film hits theaters two days before the actual Valentine's Day, which means it could still jump start the floral and candy sectors of the economy. What's not to like?
Plenty, if you listen to a young actor named Alex Meraz, who played one of the non-Taylor-Lautner werewolves in last summer's New Moon. Flying without a publicist, Meraz slammed the movie as "lame and desperate" and part of a "get rich quick skeem[sic]" in a recent tweet notwithstanding the fact that his wolfpack mate Lautner is a member of the Valentine's Day cast. The insult likely rolled right off the back of director Garry Marshall, who has surely developed a pretty thick skin over the course of his 75 years he did direct Beaches and Georgia Rule after all.
There's actually not even a whiff of desperation about Valentine's Day; the film skips along pleasantly, supremely confident in its own cuteness and utterly unapologetic about how shallow or contrived it might be. Whether his films are to your taste or not, Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries) has an undeniable gift for mainstream entertainment. His aim here is certainly somewhat self-congratulatory: an outtake that runs over the credits has Roberts, playing a military officer on leave to visit a loved one, quoting one of her most famous lines from Pretty Woman.
But the love goes both ways; nestled among Valentine's Day's multifarious plot lines is a love letter to the city and industry that made Marshall powerful enough to rally this kind of cast. He gives us a tour of Los Angeles' scenic locations, from the canals of Venice to the sandy beaches of Malibu, with a dash of the urban thrown in: the Flower Market, Dodger Stadium and a street sign for No Ho, the cutesy name for the decidedly not cute North Hollywood. The script, by Katherine Fugate (Army Wives), also serves as a tour of the various components of the Hollywood dream factory. The characters include a cutthroat agent (Queen Latifah), an actress/poet (Anne Hathaway) who moonlights as a phone-sex operator and a neurotic publicist (Jessica Biel) whose most important client is a famous quarterback (Eric Dane). The cast runs the generational gamut, from teen pop star Taylor Swift, playing (rather charmingly) a high school dork, to the 75-year-old MacLaine, one of cinema's reigning grand dames. It's a small part, but MacLaine gets a romantic scene to cherish, necking with Hector Elizondo while her lovely, fresh young self in footage from her 1958 film Hot Spell is projected behind them at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (More travelogue: the venue really does show old movies outdoors at night.)
The closest thing Valentine's Day has to a lead is Ashton Kutcher, whom I'd have thought an implausible choice to anchor anything much more than a vehement Twitter response to the impetuous Meraz. But Kutcher is surprisingly endearing as Reed, a sweet florist trying to survive the busiest day of the year while negotiating his own love life with fiancée (Jessica Alba) and the complicated affairs of his best friend Julia (Jennifer Garner). Julia is dating Grey's Anatomy's Patrick Dempsey, who plays (what else?) a surgeon. Garner and Kutcher are so alike in looks warm brown eyes, chiseled features and dimply smiles that I mistook their characters for siblings. Hathaway and the Robertses both Julia and her niece Emma, here playing a nanny to a lovesick little boy could fit into that family as well. Clearly Garry Marshall has a type.
Even with all these characters buzzing about, Valentine's Day is mainly a movie structured around moments, a few of them genuinely funny or surprising but most of the Hallmark variety. As a result, we never grow particularly attached to any of these people, but we'd like them to at least have a nice day. Yes, that is the most banal sentiment available, but that's the kind of mood the movie puts you in.