Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Like Love Actually and any number of other ensemble romantic comedies in which we watch a starry cast navigate their way through the treacherous world of romantic relationships He's Just Not That Into You -- based on the Sex and the City catch-phrase and very loosely on the resulting self-help book of the same name -- focuses on a select group of twenty- and thirtysomethings who find love is just not easy to find and hang on to in the Internet age. Here’s the scorecard: Neil (Ben Affleck) loves his seven year live-in girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Aniston) just not enough to marry her; while Beth (Jennifer Connelly) forced marriage on Ben (Bradley Cooper) before he was ready and now he’s seriously flirting with seductress. Anna (Scarlett Johansson) who’s kinda bored with her occasional sex partner Conor (Entourage’s Kevin Connolly) who would love to get her to take him seriously. Then there’s sweet likeable and lovelorn Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin) who hasn’t had the best of luck with men and takes advice from restaurant manager Alex (Justin Long) who constantly gives his perspective of the harsh realities of dating. Finally there’s good-natured Mary (Drew Barrymore) a newspaper ad sales exec who uses any number of new technologies to meet a man -- usually via her computer. The well-chosen cast is strong and likeable making the experience of seeing this overlong (at 129 minutes) romantic trifle enjoyable and fun. It’s great to see Connelly trying something lighter these days and as a wife whose marriage is slipping away she manages to be alternately funny and touching. Aniston scores in the teary scene department as a perpetual bridesmaid involved with a marriage-shy guy nicely underplayed by Affleck. Cooper is wryly funny in his wandering hubby role and Long’s romantic advice is dished out with sardonic style and wit. But it’s Goodwin who carries much of the load here and she’s endearing in her own way. Ken Kwapis knows his way around chick flicks having directed Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants among others and he shows he’s up to the challenge presented by the multi-character storyline – though at times it seems like he’s playing traffic cop just keeping the various parts merging into a whole that makes dramatic sense. None of it is earth-shatteringly original but as a date movie there’s more than enough to satisfy the girls -- and the guys.