Friday, February 26, 2010

Valentine's Day

Jean-Luc Godard once said that the best way to criticise a film is to make another one. Consider Valentine’s Day anti-criticism. If Love Actually was like a greatest hits collection of all the warmest, funniest, wittiest, most tender moments in romantic comedy than Valentine’s Day is the collection of the boring radio singles you can’t endure anymore that seem to already be on every other album you own. It’s the pathetic record label cash grab: there’s nothing new; there’s nothing inspired; and there’s no other reason to buy it unless the thought of throwing money away to hear the same old songs for the hundred and one millionth time is compelling to you. Valentine’s Day is thus a bloated collection of big stars enacting cheesy scenes from bad movies you’ve already seen countless times over. They’re the same songs, all in one convenient place, in a different order. When you think about it in those terms, that basically sums up the aesthetic ark of director Gary Marshall’s career: to disguise mediocre fluff as grand entertainment with the help of big stars. Valentine’s Day takes place over the course of a 24 hour period on February 14, and features not a single scene without, if not a big star, than a recognizable face. Some of them fall in love, some out, some with other people than they should, and some with other people that they shouldn’t; and the wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round. Most of them, the adults anyway, will end up making a pit stop at an I Hate Valentine’s Day party before racing off into the arms of true love after all. That’s the difference between Britain’s romantic comedy and America’s: the British approach romance with a polite detachment, as if they must remember to bow to love before letting it in for dinner. American films are more bitter, cynical and shallow; as if love is something to be dealt with before a grand revelation that leads straight to the cheesy, improbable happy endings. Maybe I should describe the actors. Florist Ashton Kutcher (surprisingly likable) proposes to his girlfriend Jessica Alba, using a line dear ol’ dad taught him (“If you find a girl who seems too good for you, propose.”). He’s best friends with elementary school teacher Jennifer Garner who is with doctor boyfriend Patrick Dempsey, who may still have a wife in San Francisco. Kutcher and Garner have the sweetest relationship as the two dolts who everyone else but they realizes are meant for each other. Working for Kutcher is George Lopez, doing his obligatory gee-wiz I’m an immigrant shtick. Then there’s Topher Grace going out with Anne Hatheway who, in the most unfortunate instance of a great actress forced to do embarrassing things, moonlights as a phone sex girl while also holding a job as a secretary for Queen Latifa. Julia Roberts is on a plane with Bradley Cooper. Emma Roberts plans to lose her virginity in a sequence not nearly as awkward and sweet as the same kind of one she played in the underrated Lymelife, while her shallow, moronic friend Taylor Swift, shows off her muscle-bound boyfriend Taylor Lautner, whose talent seems to evaporate in the presence of a shirt. Jamie Fox is a newsman, Jessica Biel is an agent, and Shirley MacLaine is a wife with a secret. The stories are so many and cut in such a way that there is hardly enough time to grow to care about a single one of them. Dempsey, for example, disappears for so long that by the time he swings around for a second appearance it feels like we’re already on to next week’s episode and need a refresher. Because the film is too busy to create a full story for the viewer to actually care about, what it ultimately offers is a mere reminder of all the much better films, romantic or otherwise, that all of these actors have starred in before. Garner in Juno, Kutcher in The Guardian, Latifa in Last Holiday, Cooper in The Hangover, Grace in Mona Lisa Smile, MacLaine in Terms of Endearment, Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, Roberts in Notting Hill, Biel and Alba in…nothing particularily memorable. I guess their careers have jumped the shark. That’s a term that refers to the moment when you know something will, forever after, be downhill from there. It’s named after an episode of Happy Days, a show that Gary Marshall created. Go figure. Several weeks ago I happened to watch Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman, a great romantic melodrama with Richard Gere and Debra Winger. It was a great film that cast big stars as strong characters that are forced to encounter serious obstacles on their way to finding love and deciding whether or not they were worth overcoming in the long run. They were real people with real problems. Conversely, Valentine’s Day is a film that typecasts big stars into movie-type roles as people who deal with relationships that feel as though they were dreamed up in the office of some under ambitious screenwriter who needed a convenient way to connect her long, boring, uninspired story together. Unlike An Officer and a Gentle, who’s melodrama feels not like a film but an event, this one feels like someone has pushed autopilot, just on a grander scale.

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