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.
Santa is not the only big boy coming out to play this Christmas holiday.
Things are certainly looking up in December after Mel Gibson's $34 million-plus record-setting opening last weekend at the box office for "What Women Want."
And judging from the big names, business is only going to be better this weekend as heavily anticipated films such as Tom Hanks' "Cast Away" and Nicolas Cage's "Family Man" bow nationwide today.
"It's going to be a huge weekend this holiday. I can't see how it can't be, with all the hot openings and strong holdovers," Brandon Gray, editor of boxofficemojo.com, told Hollywood.com.
And despite all the new entries breathing down its neck, Gray maintains that Gibson's "What Women Want" might not go quietly down the rankings and that the battle to watch this four-day holiday at the box office will be between the mind-reading romantic comedy and Hank's "Cast Away."
And without further ado, here's a look at the major films that will be opening during the long Christmas holiday weekend.
OPENING FRIDAY, Dec. 22
THE SKINNY: Multiple Oscar winner Tom Hanks plays a FedEx guy stranded on an island after he miraculously survives a plane crash (and you thought Bruce Willis was lucky in "Unbreakable"). Helen Hunt again plays second fiddle as the girlfriend who has been worried sick. THE UPSIDE: "It's going to be a super close weekend between 'Cast Away' and 'What Women Want,' but I am giving the edge to the Tom Hanks film," Gray says. "It seems like Tom Hanks has another winner here. He's reteaming with his 'Forrest Gump' director Robert Zemeckis, and the film has a very impressive marketing campaign." THE DOWNSIDE: The scraggly Hanks reminds you too much of "Survivor" jackpot winner Richard Hatch ... especially whenever Hanks is half-naked, which is pretty often.
"THE FAMILY MAN"
THE SKINNY: Oh, the big "what if": Nicolas Cage does a turn as a ruthless banker who wakes up one day to find himself shacked up in a beautiful house and a beautiful wife that were not his before. THE UPSIDE: It's "It's a Wonderful Life" with a somewhat modern overhaul. THE DOWNSIDE: Alas, Cage is no Jimmy Stewart. And, alas, the film will probably only be good enough for a No. 3 or No. 4 opening this weekend, depending on if "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" continues to make a killing, Gray predicts.
THE SKINNY: Sandra Bullock plays an FBI agent planted as a mole in a beauty pageant to thwart a terrorist bombing. THE UPSIDE: "This film is a wild card," Gray said. "It could come in at No. 5. It's either that or 'The Emperor's New Groove.'" THE DOWNSIDE: Remember "28 Days"? Need we say more.
"WES CRAVEN PRESENTS DRACULA 2000"
THE SKINNY: Horror-meister Wes Craven's millennial update of the bloodsucker yarn. This one has Justine Waddell, Christopher Plummer, singer Vitamin C and Omar Epps. THE UPSIDE: The teen-heavy horror film is trying to duplicate the success of "Scream 2" back in 1997, which also opened during the same weekend. And this positioning of "Dracula 2000" for the teen set might just work, especially when the marketplace is saturated with sappy, old fart flicks. THE DOWNSIDE: If you really want to see a vampire flick, it might serve your needs better to see "Shadow of the Vampire" next week.
And that's not all. Over in the limited release category, there're the "Good Will Hunting"-esque "Finding Forrester" with Sean Connery and the psychological drama "The Gift" with Cate Blanchett, last year's Best Actress Oscar winner Hilary Swank and Keanu Reeves (as a wife beater, no less).
Plus: the Coen Brothers' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" with George Clooney and the David Mamet comedy "State and Main" will also open in limited release.
OPENING MONDAY, DEC. 25
"ALL THE PRETTY HORSES"
THE SKINNY: In this tale helmed by Billy Bob Thornton, Matt Damon plays a Texas cowboy heading south of the border for some adventure and life experience. He finds both in Penelope Cruz, who plays the daughter of a Mexican rancher not too keen on the burgeoning romance. THE UPSIDE: Since the film opens on Christmas Day and at the tail end of the four-day holiday weekend, it will definitely not be a Top Five contender. But, as Gray says, that shouldn't keep the film from doing decent business for the day. THE DOWNSIDE: The talented Mr. Damon was swiftly forgotten by moviegoers in "The Legend of Beggar Vance." Will audiences do the same to him with this film?
Kevin Costner's Cuban Missile Crisis drama "Thirteen Days" and the luscious period piece "Vatel" with Uma Thurman and Gerard Depardieu both also open -- in New York and Los Angeles -- on Christmas Day.
And don't forget other holdovers such as "Dude, Where's My Car?," "Vertical Limit," and "Proof of Life" to finish out the Top 10.