Directed by Garry Marshall
It's tempting to describe Valentine's Day as the work of a single hack, director Garry Marshall. For more than two decades, multiplex-auteur Marshall has been churning out one box-office hit after another. A couple of these movies are actually pretty good. Overboard, which wasn't much of a hit, is a virtual cult classic, at least among Kurt Russell enthusiasts like myself; and the guilty pleasures of Young Doctors in Love, an unsung hospital raunch comedy, warrant reappraisal. But count these as the exceptions that prove the rule. Most of the entries in the treacly Marshall oeuvre run the gamut from very bad (Pretty Woman) to just god-awful (Beaches). And so while the director's sitcom-derived aesthetic (he and sister Penny both got their start in TV) and his penchant for unfunny jokes dog nearly every frame of Valentine's Day, what makes Hollywood's latest paean to February 14 so uniquely terrible is that it's not entirely his fault. Valentine's Day is the result of many hacks working together.
That estimable team includes an ensemble cast pairing TV lightweights and pop star Taylor Swift with genuine talent, a screenwriter, Katherine Fugate (Army Wives), who never met a romcom cliché she couldn't fit in somewhere, and an editor, Bruce Green, whose many sloppy narrative gaps could almost be mistaken for something avant-garde if they weren't so obviously the choices of a collective of filmmakers determined to sail smoothly over anything resembling an actual story.
The LA Weekly's recently hired film critic, Karina Longworth, has correctly diagnosed Valentine's Day as a shameless mash-up of He's Just Not That Into You and Crash, and indeed Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, the writers behind the former, earn a story credit here. As for the latter film, if you can't spot the similarities with Crash (narratively contrived automobile collisions, rampant ethnic stereotyping, do-gooding white liberals) you quite literally don't know how to watch a movie. But what Longworth, as a recent SoCal transplant, misses in her otherwise dead-on review is that Valentine's Day resembles Crash not so much in its intertwined short stories and flimsy excuses for character development, but in its fucked-up depiction of Los Angeles.
Marshall boasts in the production notes about having the same fake bus stop installed out front of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel that he used to similar effect in Pretty Woman—as if injecting a bit of fantasy into Southern California was a novel idea. From its posh beach houses to its shopworn overhead tracking shots of downtown, Valentine's Day's Los Angeles is a city that lives only at the movies—a place where the skies are always blue, never smoggy, and where traffic jams are major impediments, but only until, when it suits the story, they suddenly become non-existent. If you know anything about the local geography (I was born and raised there) you might get the impression that several of the characters are traveling by means of teleportation.
It ought to be a joke, but isn't, when Julia Roberts—who, get this, plays a solider on leave from the War on Terror—exclaims that she lives all the way off in "the Valley." She's at LAX, you see, and worried it'll take forever to get home and see her loved ones, because she only has a day to visit with them. Why those loved ones aren't just picking her up at the airport is a mystery that's never resolved, but the real rub here is the notion that the Valley, which is just over the hill from Hollywood, is on another planet, when in reality most Angelinos commute to and from bedroom communities that are far further flung (cf. the recently burst housing bubble in distant Riverside County). Only a Hollywood insider—someone who thinks the essence of Los Angeles is lunching at The Ivy and dining at the aforementioned Beverly Wilshire—could possibly understand the greater Southland this way. And there's the tell.
Now, Valentine's Day sucks for a lot of reasons (don't, for example, get me started on the scene where Ashton Kutcher borrows a lavender Chevy lowrider from the cousin of his best buddy and employee, George Lopez) but what makes it truly insidious is that it belongs to what the critic Armond White has termed the Phantom Hollywood genre.
Phantom Hollywood movies don't necessarily take place in Los Angeles—White coined the name apropos of It's Complicated, which is nominally set in Santa Barbara—but wherever they unfold, these films depict the values of the people who work in the movie industry under the guise of showing us average, salt-of-the-earth people. That explains why Roberts, a movie star if ever there was one, gets cast as an enlisted woman, or why the photogenic Jamie Foxx, who quickly broke out of the small screen for a reason, plays a struggling local sportscaster. It also explains why the Latino gardeners, who all arrive simultaneously to tend Beverly Hills's lawns in a too-cutesy-by-half opening montage, are mere window dressing for the blandly attractive, predominantly white cast.
The lone moment of unironic fun in Valentine's Day involves Jennifer Garner, an underrated actress who has already proven time and again that she deserves better material than this. After discovering that her doctor boyfriend (McDreamy) is married, she attends BFF Jessica Biel's annual hating-on-VD party, where a pink, heart-shaped piñata hangs from the ceiling. Garner immediately grabs the bat and confidently twirls it with one hand. It's as if she's no longer the milquetoast schoolteacher the script calls for, but has instead transformed into something closer to the aggrieved, yet kickass, heroine she played so effectively on Alias. She looks pissed off and ready to do something about it. Your reviewer knows how she feels.
Opens February 12