There are star-studded ensemble movies, and then there are cast lists that resemble a galactic arm after a super nova. “Valentine’s Day,” the latest from television deity Gary Marshall, takes the patchwork storytelling approach and gives us multiple and occasionally intersecting mini-plots stitched together into two hours. Marquee names abound, from the schoolteacher-florist pair of Julia (Jennifer Garner) and Reed (Aston Kutcher), to the more interesting performers like Anne Hathaway (playing phone-sex operator Liz) and Topher Grace (mailroom worker Jason). Is the orgy of talent enough to make “Valentine’s Day” worth the holiday namesake?
Intertwining narratives are notoriously difficult to pull off. The segmented screen time is barely enough to build audiences up to caring for the various characters before their respective conflicts arise. Unfortunately for “Valentine’s,” the plot as a whole seems to have spread itself across a few too many couples, each romantic comedy segment missing just a few minutes of development time as the master plot speeds along. Considering the absolute pain of watching Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift’s useless couple, it’s easy to see the pockets of blubber the film could stand to lose.
Dividing the screen time up with such a universally famous cast does “Valentine’s” no favors; many stories are limited to dream celebrity hook-ups or extended ego cameos. What distances “Valentine’s Day” from the better romantic ensemble films like “Love Actually” is, sadly, a lack of tangible romance. The stars schmooze between themselves enough to make a decent trailer reel, but when forced to woo beyond the highlights and into actual stories, most of the chemistry available is stretched three yards past the breaking point. Some couples (like the old critic’s dream of seeing Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo together) manage to appear genuinely interested in each other, but most just look like they are playing kissy-face for the camera.
It is sad then, that a functional and entertaining film is just barely visible here, stuffed in the cracks between all the tedium and truncated love stories. The film’s production plays a loving tribute to the romantic tropes and clichés it throws out en masse, and takes equal pleasure in subtly trashing the idiocy of it all.
The cinematography takes the rare occasion to play with the soft focus so required by love scenes, and its sly meandering in and out of the Hollywood style of shooting tosses so many winks at the audience that it seems as if the film might actually be having a stroke. It’s a terrible shame that none of the actors were apparently clued into the undertone during filming.
Katherine Fugate’s script plays connect-the-dots with the last 50 years of romantic film plot points, but their accumulation is more out of love than lack of talent. The dialogue feels like a gentle roast of mushy love stories – each situation feeling remarkably self-effacing despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of character development. Lighting and costume design are conventional to the point of headache – a shame considering the mountains of possible parody shots of dynamic soft lighting that could have been used. The soundtrack also fails to provide any memorable music on the orchestra front, giving plenty of room for the popular music tracks to take center stage as obnoxiously as possible. Gary Marshall’s directing, however, gives the film a lingering sense of awareness, as if it knows just how stupid it all is. If they had managed to eke out a bit more talent out of the cast – again, the dead Taylor weight cannot be admonished enough – the foundation of a masterwork of parody had been laid, set and paved. As it is, “Valentine’s Day” just gives the film nerds something to smirk at each other over.
“Valentine’s Day” does its holiday proud, but depending on the audience member, that may not be a good thing. Like its commercial festival namesake, “Valentine’s” is an unhealthy obsession with triviality, but openly so. The script never takes its homage-bloated self too seriously, and behind-the-scenes, there’s a noticeable self-deprecating grin behind every emotionally over-charged moment. What the casual viewer will find, however, is a non-functional collection of vignettes, each never really getting started – a cavalcade of gossip fantasies. But, like the chocolate that you can actually feel rotting your teeth, that’s the whole reason we celebrate in the first place. We may just not want to admit it.