Garry Marshall is best known as the director of Pretty Woman and is beloved by me solely for his supporting turn in Albert Brooks' Lost in America. But at heart, this Hollywood vet is a TV guy, having honed his craft for slight, easily digestible comedy as a writer/director/producer for such hit series as The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley. Marshall's filmography also includes a couple of writing credits for Love, American Style. That forgettable series seems to be the precursor for Marshall's latest big-screen project: Valentine's Day, a "star"-packed rom-com that raked in an estimated $67 million box office last weekend.
Where Love, American Style separated its barely written romantic/comedy vignettes into self-contained scenes, Valentine's Day is somewhat more ambitious. Set over the course of a single Los Angeles day and night on the titular holiday, the film intertwines the romantic stories of roughly 20 primary characters, like a cut-rate answer to Robert Altman's Short Cuts.
Filled with celebrities if not always movie stars, Valentine's Day divides its cast into settled couples (Hector Elizondo, Shirley MacLaine), new couples (Patrick Dempsey, Jennifer Garner), bitter singles (Jessica Biel, Jamie Foxx), and strangers passing in the night (Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts). There are so many drop-ins here that Marshall has name actors (Kathy Bates) just standing around.
The location shooting adds some interest, at least more than the storylines, which are listlessly written and play as if the actors were handed scripts moments before shooting. Jessica Alba sleepwalks through a few scenes. Queen Latifah is forced into an awkwardly outdated bit of racial comedy. Taylor Swift's big-screen debut is at first endearingly energetic and self-deprecating but ultimately overplayed. And we're asked to take Ashton Kutcher seriously as both a florist (!?) and an adult.
But with no one given anything substantial to work with, the film emerges as something of a test as to which of its actors has real big-screen appeal, with two winners emerging, one expected and one not. Anne Hathaway is a struggling actress paying the bills as a phone-sex operator who specializes in accents — a phony character only a lazy screenwriter could love. And yet I kept wanting this overlong film (125 minutes) to drift back to her story anyway. Hathaway's too good for this movie but doesn't act like it. And I didn't realize until the credits that the babysitter thinking about losing her virginity to a high school boyfriend was Emma "niece of Julia" Roberts, a young actress struggling to turn Nancy Drew into a franchise. She's the most real thing on the screen in Valentine's Day. Somebody find her a real role.