To paraphrase that Southern philosopher Mama Gump, “Valentine’s Day” is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get -- although I’m pretty sure ooey-gooey sweetness and absolutely no nutritional value is a given.
Because the man handing out this particular box is Garry Marshall, definitely more a milk chocolate than dark bittersweet kind of guy, the hearts-on-sleeves sentimentality that saturates this romantic comedy won’t come as a surprise. Funny-sweet terrain has proved a very good match for the director over the years, with “Pretty Woman” among his many nougats.
But unlike more traditional romantic comedies with only a couple of crazy kids to root for, “Valentine’s Day” is conceived in the new market-driven style of “He’s Just Not That Into You,” with a bevy of bankable A- and B-listers dropped into a series of vignettes, a dash of dialogue, lightly tossed, and voilà, a rom-com for the text-messaging generation.
The veteran Marshall has proved a quick study, serving up the pastiche with panache so the stars mostly shine, the story snippets mostly amuse and you’ll barely notice all the empty spots where a plot used to be.
As if in recognition of the slings and arrows that might fly his way in light of the sheer amount of sugary mush we’re asked to swallow here, Marshall throws in something akin to a warning label. It comes as the curtain, and the sun also, rises on Ashton Kutcher’s cheery flower shop owner who’s picked Valentine’s Day to pop the question. His very beautiful, very type-A, very out of his league girlfriend Jessica Alba says yes, and like uncorked Champagne, he’s bubbling over with excitement. All smiles and soon off to work -- V-Day is D-Day for florists, you know -- where he tells buddy George Lopez (and the rest of us) he intends to be a sappy cheese ball all day long. In this Kutcher does not disappoint, delivering sap and cheese along with about a million roses until the bitter end with the same endearing goofy denseness that made him so likable on “That ‘70s Show.”
The film is set in present day L.A., which gets more love than most of the characters from cinematographer Charles Minsky (a frequent Marshall collaborator). Yet despite all the close-ups, from Disney Hall to the Venice canals, the city seems all shiny surface and not a grittier, more authentic place you’d actually leave your heart in -- for that try "(500) Days of Summer.”
Everything unfolds over 24 hours with roughly a dozen interwoven hookup and breakup stories featuring the film’s 18 stars. Because it’s confusing enough to follow that many emotional threads, we’re going to dispense with any character names (and, really, screenwriter Katherine Fugate needn’t have bothered either.)
Here’s the setup: Ashton loves Alba, while his best friend, Jennifer Garner, is in love with Patrick Dempsey, who lives in the same building as teenager Taylor Swift, who’s in love with Taylor Lautner, who goes to the same high school as Emma Roberts, who’s contemplating sex with boyfriend Carter Jenkins. Emma also baby-sits 10-year-old Bryce Robinson, who is sure he’s found “the one,” while his long-married grandparents Hector Elizondo and Shirley MacLaine consider renewing their vows.
Stay with me here, we’re not finished yet. Across town, Topher Grace (if only Mila Kunis had shown up we could have had a “ ‘70s Show” reunion) and Anne Hathaway are getting serious, Eric Dane’s football career is suddenly in question, which means his agent Queen Latifah has issues, to say nothing of his publicist Jessica Biel, whose anti-Valentine’s Day party is in jeopardy too. Meanwhile, local TV sportscaster Jamie Foxx is forced to spend the day reporting on romance thanks to his heartless boss Kathy Bates, when he really needs Biel to score him an interview with Dane. Flying high above all these entanglements are flirty seatmates Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts on a transatlantic, or should I say transromantic, flight bound for L.A., though considering the mess below who would want to land.
If you do the math (no worries, that’s what I’m here for), that’s about 10 minutes of screen time per couple, time that has to be shared with countless plot twists and turns, confusions and confessions, a bunch of broken hearts that will need mending and at least one bashed piñata that can’t be saved, which I could totally relate to.
Meanwhile, in case you’ve forgotten just how many pop love songs have piled up over the years (again I’ll handle the figures here), there have been countless, seriously countless, and “Valentine’s Day” dips into that deep well of mood music, pulling out a mix of vintage ballads like “When a Man Loves a Woman,” a couple of current cuts from Swift and will.i.am’s “Heartbreaker.”
With so much going on, being memorable isn’t easy, so props to the best of the bunch: Emma and aunt Julia don’t embarrass the Roberts family; in the “Grey’s Anatomy” hunk arena, McSteamy (Dane) beats McDreamy (Dempsey) hands down; best kiss-off goes to Garner, whose takedown of one beau might be the “When Harry Met Sally” moment of the movie; Hathaway picks up best phone sex in a foreign accent honors; best conversation with a stranger in an elevator goes to Swift’s smitten Valley girl, suggesting the young country singing sensation has serious comedic potential; and best meta-movie moment is a 70ish MacLaine declaiming her love while a scene from 1958’s “Hot Spell” starring a 20ish MacLaine plays on a big screen behind her.
The effect of all those spinning songs, stars and scenarios is merry-go-round-like, producing a sort of dizzying collage that no doubt some will adore, while others will just get nauseous -- maybe Julia or Bradley will hand over their air sickness bags.