Friday, February 12, 2010

Valentine's Day: Rather sweet

Valentine's Day (2010) • View trailer for Valentine's Day
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.12.10
Buy DVD: Valentine's Day • Buy Blu-Ray: Valentine's Day [Blu-ray]

Interconnected stories and all-star casts have been a Hollywood staple ever since 1932's Grand Hotel, a best picture Academy Award winner that tossed Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery  and numerous other big names of the day  into a richly melodramatic and romantic stew that took place at a plush Berlin hotel "where nothing ever happens."

The technique also has been exploited for tension-fueled drama in recent hits such as Crash and Babel.
Ten-year-old Edison (Bryce Robinson, right) thinks nothing of the fact that he
has insufficient funds for an expensive flower transaction, and assumes that
Reed (Ashton Kutcher) will stand him the difference. Their negotiation is one
of many aw-shucks moments in Valentine's Day.

On a lighter, more playfully romantic note, the recent benchmark remains 2003's Love Actually, one of the most sparkling ensemble romps ever made.

Director Garry Marshall and a trio of screenwriters  Katherine Fugate, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein  seem to have fashioned Valentine's Day as an American response to Love Actually, and to a degree they've succeeded. Marshall's film, although uneven, hits many of the same whimsical high notes; the large ensemble cast is well used in a series of stories connected in ways that are both mildly contrived and extremely clever.

Indeed, the final few surprises  saved for the film's very end  can't help making you smile.

The varied events and encounters take place during a single day  Valentine's Day  throughout various portions of Los Angeles. We begin with three different couples waking in each other's arms: flower shop vendor Reed (Ashton Kutcher), who springs a ring and pops the question to girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba); grade school teacher Julia (Jennifer Garner), deliriously in love with new boyfriend Harrison (Patrick Dempsey); and agent-in-training Jason (Topher Grace), in the early stages of dating agency receptionist Liz (Anne Hathaway).

Elsewhere, teen bubblehead Felicia (pop music sensation Taylor Swift) receives a huge stuffed white teddy bear from boyfriend Willy (Taylor Lautner). Felicia's good friend Grace (Emma Roberts) and her longtime boyfriend Alex (Carter Jenkins) have decided to "take their relationship to the next level" with a clandestine lunchtime bedroom rendezvous at her home, when she knows both parents will be out.

Grace babysits 10-year-old Edison (Bryce Robinson), who lives with his grandparents (Shirley MacLaine, Hector Elizondo) and is a star pupil in Julia's class. Edison, secretly sweet on somebody in his classroom, has grandiose plans for this particular Valentine's Day.

But not everybody is swooningly, deliriously perky over the prospect of this annual holiday for lovers. TV sports reporter Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) resents being stuck with a day of "lovers in the street" puff pieces, when he'd much rather pursue a story involving the future of star football quarterback Sean Jackson (Eric Dane).

Jackson's career also is a priority with his publicist, Kara (Jessica Biel), who disses every Feb. 14 by throwing a self-indulgent "I Hate Valentine's Day" pity party at a local restaurant.

Finally, high in the sky and en route to LAX, Kate (Julia Roberts), a U.S. Army captain, is on a short leave and flying 14 hours in order to spend a few precious hours in Los Angeles; she and seatmate Holden (Bradley Cooper) "meet cute" and get to know each other as their flight (and the movie) continues.

Got all that?

Reed and his best friend/star employee, Alphonso (George Lopez), are the catalysts for much of what goes down; their jobs as flower couriers are key to many of the entanglements on this Valentine's Day. Reed and Julia also happen to be longtime 'best buds': the go-to companions for each other, for activities that aren't easily understood by their respective lovers.

Chaperoning a film of this nature requires the nimble dexterity of vaudeville performers who keep dozens of plates spinning simultaneously atop thin poles, and our willingness to go along depends on Marshall's ability to both hold our attention, and keep all of these entwined stories equally interesting.

Inevitably, some are much better than others.

We ache for both Kutcher and Garner, as  almost from the start  both Reed and Julia seem destined for heartbreak. Young Robinson is terrific in his part, particularly when Edison negotiates an expensive bouquet purchase with Reed, for delivery later than day.

Swift is funny beyond words as the airheaded Felicia; she's fully comfortable and a completely convincing natural on camera, and clearly could fall back on a film career if she ever tires of entertaining millions with her music. She's one of the best hilariously dumb blondes I've seen since Marilyn Monroe perfected such roles, back in the 1950s.

Roberts and Cooper are great, particularly since both their characters come with secrets that are dangled, tantalizingly, during the entire film.

On the other hand, as cute as Grace and Hathaway are with each other, her character's "other life"  as a phone sex "performer"  is rather a stretch. Biel's Kara is similarly forced, Alba's Morley is under-developed, and Foxx doesn't even belong in this film; he seems to have been inserted as the token actor of color, and his eventual appearance at Kara's pity party is stiff and awkward.

Just as his character resents getting the Valentine's Day beat, Foxx seems uncomfortable participating in this froth; he gives off the vibe that he's slumming, and resents it.

MacLaine and Elizondo deliver a bit of melodrama for the senior set: a plot hiccup that concludes warmly at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which has become famous (in real life) for its late-night outdoor movie screenings. MacLaine's character is a retired actress, and in a cute bit, her payoff scene comes during a cemetery screening of 1958's Hot Spell, which starred  yep  MacLaine.

And trust Marshall to resurrect his bus stop scene in front of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, which was so iconic during an exchange between Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. The production team for this film inserted another bus stop bench in front of the same hotel, for a pivotal scene between Grace and Hathaway.

Valentine's Day isn't the sort of film that encourages great acting. It's more of a likable, good-natured frolic: perhaps an insubstantial, idealized view of love, much like Feb. 14 itself. That said, it's an engaging date flick  if a trifle too long  that's certainly to produce warm fuzzies in willing viewers.

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