Today, if you’ve somehow avoided the annual advertising blitz, is Valentine’s Day. Throughout the day, hundreds of thousands of people, from grade schoolers to loving couples, will be giving each other gifts. At least some of those gifts are bound to be unwanted. I have my own unwanted gift to deal with, in the form of one of several free digital movies given me by VUDU: Garry Marshall’s 2010 romantic comedy, Valentine’s Day. I’d never seek this film out to watch it on my own initiative; even at a casual glance, it exhibits six of my Top 10 Warning Signs of a Bad Romantic Comedy. But I hate having an unwatched film in my collection, even if it isn’t one I selected for myself. And if nothing else, it’s certainly a film which is appropriate to review today.
The film is as difficult to stomach as I had feared. I find most rom-coms to be a bit saccharine anyway, but I suspect that even the most devoted fan of the genre would find Valentine’s Day to be excessively syrupy. With seven or eight criss-crossing storylines that all demonstrate the triumph of love against all odds, there’s the potential for an uplifting message, and Marshall clearly believes he’s delivered. But there’s no meat to it, no flavor. It’s the cinematic equivalent of fondant; it’s vaguely sweet, and it looks pretty, but it should not under any circumstances be construed as sustenance.
A screenshot that doubles as apt criticism!
The “plot”, so to speak, is a jumbled series of contrivances and ridiculousness. There’s a basic through-line of Ashton Kutcher as a florist — of course he’s a florist in a movie about Valentine’s Day — who has just proposed to his girlfriend, played by Jessica Alba and improbably named Morley (perhaps her parents were expecting a newsman?) His deliveries throughout the day introduce and set up some of the other plot lines. The film is set in Los Angeles, which apparently is a much smaller town than I’ve been led to believe, as everything is interconnected to the point of resembling a spider-web — and like a spider-web, it’s so fragile that it’ll break if you look at it cross-eyed. Kutcher’s florist is best friends with a teacher (Jennifer Garner) dating a doctor (Patrick Dempsey) who has to go out of town on call for the holiday. She has a kid in her class who is pining over a girl and seeks Kutcher’s help getting the right present. The kid’s babysitter, Emma Roberts, is hoping to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, while his grandparents (Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine) have to face a revelation from their past. The grandfather has a heart-to-heart with a stranger in a park, who is dealing with the fact that his girlfriend, Anne Hathaway, moonlights as a phone sex operator. Her regular job is as a temp for a sports agent (Queen Latifah) whose star client (Eric Dane) has just been let go by his team, and is considering using the time to pursue a private life. Jamie Foxx plays a sportscaster following the story, who works with the athlete’s press agent, Jessica Biel, who is hosting an “I Hate Valentine’s Day” party for all her lonely friends, including… Jennifer Garner’s character, bringing it all full circle. Plus there’s a non-story involving Julia Roberts on a plane ride home, and a few scenes with a young couple played by Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner that appears to have no purpose other than to give them a chance to compete over who can give the least-convincing portrayal of a lovestruck teenager (Lautner wins).
Record holder for the highest ratio of contrivance to plot.
At its best, the movie runs on coincidence; at its worst, it dredges up the most hackneyed plot devices imaginable. Pick a romantic comedy cliche; any romantic comedy cliche. If you’ve seen it more than ten times, you’ll see it here. The stories are so obvious that the only possible surprise is if you’ve started to nod off and lose track of what’s going on. An audience member who is even slightly awake will know from the beginning who will end up with who, and how. The sheer number of storylines means that each individual story is so threadbare that there’s nothing to it; there’s no room for complexity, or to develop either plot or character. It’s impossible to care about these characters’ problems being magically solved by the power of Valentine’s Day when those problems only came about that same day and are universally the result of willful blindness and poor communication. And the characters themselves are barely shades of personalities; I had to double-check most of the roles when mentioning them above to ensure I didn’t mix up the actors, because they were simply that interchangeable.
If the writing falls flat on developing plots and characters, it should be no surprise that it fails in other ways as well. The dialogue in the film isn’t exactly poor — although the scenes with children suggest the writer has never talked to one — but it isn’t memorable either. It’s as cliched and generic as the stories. This is a film written by Mad Libs; “Insert pained declaration of love here”. If you were to take the top 20 romantic comedies of the past thirty years, select quotes at random, and put them together in a script, the results would be eerily similar. Every great once in a while there would be a flash of genuine wit, which I latched onto like a starving man to a crust of bread, but even the best of these felt like it was lifted from When Harry Met Sally‘s most famous scene. The story involving the babysitter and her boyfriend feels like it owes at least a little bit to American Pie, though this is a tamer film.
Given the spirit of the day, it’d be nice to be able to cut the film some slack and give circumstances under which I could still recommend it. But that just isn’t going to happen. If you’re looking for a romantic comedy, picking virtually anything else will be an improvement in both originality and depth. If you just want something inoffensive on in the background, that doesn’t require much thought, while you putter around the house preparing for a party or dinner date or anything else… turn on Food Network or something. At least then there’s a chance of seeing something interesting. Valentine’s Day perfectly fits what the holiday’s harshest detractors describe it as: mass-produced, over-commercialized, and utterly artificial.