Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Film review: This 'Valentine' too sweet even for the day

Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba in Valentine's Day.

By John Thomason

Who wouldn’t want to live in the antiseptic fantasyland of Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day?

Ostensibly set in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, it’s a world in which women wake up in full makeup, irate motorists yell obscenities like “heck,” airport guards shrug off security breaches if the breacher is an attractive young romantic, and the meteorologists tap-dance the weather report. Even phone-sex operators speak with PG language and goofy accents. There’s no crime to speak of, just the occasional turbulence on the airways, but don’t worry, you’ll be through it shortly.

Yes, Valentine’s Day is as edgy as a circle – seemingly mindless fluff best suited for red-eye airplane viewing after a dose of Xanax. But underneath the plastic, gooey surface, the movie’s brazen implausibility and head-shaking naïveté border on the offensive – and I’m not speaking of the racially insensitive stereotypes in the phone-sex exchanges, which the movie milks for cheap laughs.

Rather, Valentine’s Day is offensive the way Reefer Madness and Cosmo are offensive: the prior, in presenting underage sex as a moralistic cautionary tale about the virtues of saying no to temptation; the latter, in perpetuating unrealistic ideals about love and romance. Your man say something hurtful? Just wait a couple of hours for his epiphany, and he’ll be showing up at your door with a homemade art project and a three-piece band (literally).

The characters inhabiting these ridiculous conceits are supposed to encompass a comprehensive swath of L.A. life, from cute little rugrats to young-at-heart grandparents and all the upper-middle-class WASPs in between. There’s the philandering Dr. Harrison (Patrick Dempsey, playing a nastier version of his Grey’s Anatomy Lothario), who’s having an affair with elementary school teacher Julia, who really belongs with platonic best friend and florist Reed (Ashton Kutcher), who’s celebrating a morning engagement to girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba).

Then there’s Jason (Topher Grace), a postal worker from backwoods Indiana who’s dating Liz (Anne Hathaway), a public relations cubicle drone and wannabe poet who moonlights as a phone-sexer. Jessica Biel is a neurotic, lonely-heart publicist for an ailing footballer (Eric Dane, another Grey’s Anatomy player); Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper are seatmates who get to know each other on a 14-hour flight; Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo are an elderly couple set to renew their vows; and Emma Roberts and Carter Jenkins are the horny teenagers who learn the error of their ways.

Contrary to the vast majority of the cast, there are some people of color in Marshall’s catch-all coterie of rom-com clichés, but Jamie Foxx (as a TV sports reporter), Queen Latifah (as a sports agent) and George Lopez (as Reed’s best friend, a cardboard stock character who still manages to outact Kutcher in all of their scenes together) are all underutilized and underdeveloped.

No shocker here – the best actors in the cast seem to be the ones who get the least screen time, while the desperate comedic high jinks of Garner and Kutcher dominate the proceedings. Blink and you’ll miss Kathy Bates. Seriously.

But the most flaws, as in the majority of bad movies, fall on the writing. Marshall directs an insipid Katherine Fugate script, full of sappy, contrived hokum and saccharine “I learned something today” moments. There are lines so cringe-worthy, it’s a miracle they were ever approved by anybody – all that’s missing is “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Obviously, Valentine’s Day is not a film designed to please critics, but Marshall and Fugate fail even at giving the mass public an entertaining diversion.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

VALENTINE'S DAY. Director: Garry Marshall; Cast: Ashton Kutcher, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Patrick Dempsey, Jessica Alba, Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Topher Grace, Jessica Biel, Hector Elizondo, Eric Dane, Bradley Cooper, George Lopez, Shirley MacLaine. Distributor: Warner Brothers; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday; Venue: most commercial houses

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