Love is like a box of chocolates. ... Apparently.
Directed by Garry Marshall
Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway
For all the emotional panic that surrounds the holiday, Valentine’s Day is actually quite easy. About the laziest, least-thought-out thing you can do is buy a big, heart-shaped Whitman’s Sampler full of waxy chocolates or have a dozen pink roses from FTD delivered to your loved one’s office. And even then you’re in the clear. Millions of people do just that every year and are greeted with appreciative squeals of, “You’re so thoughtful!” The secret of Valentine’s Day, you see, is that it’s the one occasion on which you can’t be too mushy, too cheesy or too cliché.
Valentine’s Day, the new ensemble romantic comedy from former sitcom guru Garry Marshall (“Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Mork & Mindy”), knows this tricky little truism and exploits it for all it’s worth. Valentine’s Day is like some secret and possibly unethical lab experiment combining a case of Hallmark cards and a Robert Altman film. The story takes place over the course of a single day (Feb. 14, of course) in the city of Los Angeles. A dozen-or-so storylines and roughly half the actors in Hollywood are involved. We’ve got Jessica Alba, Kathy Bates, Jessica Biel, Bradley Cooper, Eric Dane, Patrick Dempsey (McSteamy and McDreamy!), Hector Elizondo, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, Topher Grace, Anne Hathaway, Ashton Kutcher, Queen Latifah, Taylor Lautner, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine, Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts (a Roberts family twofer) and Taylor Swift. Holy crow, producers are just one Buddy Hackett short of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World!
The script for Valentine’s Day comes to us courtesy of Katherine Fugate (who gave us The Prince & Me II: The Royal Wedding). Hoping to score at least one hit with every demographic in the audience, Fugate loads up Cupid’s bow with a banana clip full of arrows and starts firing in random directions. In one story thread, we’ve got a romance-loving florist (Kutcher) who starts off our fateful day by proposing to his girlfriend (Alba). In another, we’ve got a rich businessman (Cooper) and an Iraq-assigned army officer (Roberts the elder) bonding on a plane to L.A. At the same time, an elementary school teacher (Garner) plots a surprise V-Day visit to her rich doctor boyfriend (Dempsey) in San Francisco. There’s a TV sportscaster (Foxx) stuck doing man-on-the-street interviews while trying to land a scoop about a possibly retiring quarterback (Dane). There’s a romance-hating sports manager (Biel) organizing an “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party while juggling her client’s career meltdown. There’s a naive mailroom clerk (Grace) dating a cute secretary (Hathaway) who moonlights as a phone sex operator. (Word to the wise: Phone sex operators do not look like Anne Hathaway. Most are obese welfare mothers from Kentucky. Also, they do not hand out their personal phone numbers so clients can call them 24/7.) Throw the usual bag of breakups, make-ups and cute misunderstandings at these folks and we’ve got ourselves a rom-com.
Typical for this sort of multistory arc is the idea that all paths eventually cross. Each character is related to another in some way, even if their storylines don’t really have anything to do with one another. Like our aptly metaphorical Whitman’s Sampler, you’ve got to expect some bad elements along with the good. For every chocolate-covered caramel there’s some sort of raspberry creme that gets pinched and put back in the box. Eric Dane’s storyline about an aging quarterback reconsidering his career doesn’t really go anywhere. Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift play a pair of high school sweethearts who ... are high school sweethearts. Queen Latifah and Kathy Bates are there to fill up space on the cast list and not much else.
Predictable as the remaining storylines might be, audiences won’t balk. Since his stint as a television producer, Mr. Marshall has proved himself a canny mainstream film director. Bland as his résumé might be (Beaches, Pretty Woman, Exit to Eden, Dear God, The Other Sister, Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries), he knows how to engineer a frothy, middle-American crowd-pleaser. Valentine’s Day falls right into that category. It’s contrived, predictable and wafer-thin. By the end, the sap is flowing freer than a Vermont maple syrup farm in November. But honestly, on Valentine’s Day, who’s gonna complain?
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