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Cold Hearts

by Ross Douthat

A review of Valentine’s Day

Movie criticism, like most human affairs, suffers during extreme weather. Before Washington, D.C., was buried beneath successive blizzards, I was planning to review The Wolfman, and distinctly looking forward to it. Anthony Hopkins chewing the scenery! Benicio Del Toro pretending to be British! Emily Blunt, fresh from playing Queen Victoria, as the tight-bodiced love interest! Darkened moors and foggy woods, decaying manors and ripe full moons! I’m not saying it would have been a good movie, mind you — but I’m pretty sure it would have been fun to write and read about.

Then the storms of February swept through our nation’s capital, throwing schedules into chaos and wreaking havoc on critics’ screenings. And there came a dark moment, on a snow-washed midweek day, when it became apparent that the only new release I would be able to see in time to meet my deadline was Garry Marshall’s Valentine’s Day.

Ever the slave of duty, I screwed up my courage and went to see it. And those two lost hours of my life will have been worth it, dear reader, if I can persuade you not to do the same.

In 20 years behind the lens, Marshall has made exactly one good film: Pretty Woman. Despite the presence of Julia Roberts and a Los Angeles backdrop, Valentine’s Day is a bad movie; indeed, I’m not sure I’m comfortable describing it as a movie at all, since the mere word graces Marshall’s effort with undeserved prestige.

Most of what Hollywood does is crass and cynical, of course, but the level of cynicism required of everyone who worked on Valentine’s Day is nonetheless extraordinary. This is a pseudo-film made entirely in bad faith: It has the spirit of a market-research dossier, the wit of a Hallmark infomercial, and the weight of a 30-second pitch meeting. I’ve seen movie trailers with more soul, and Super Bowl commercials with more substance.

Valentine’s Day borrows its structure from 2003’s Love Actually and last year’s He’s Just Not That Into You, both of which organized a gaggle of romantic vignettes around a commercially appealing concept. (Love affairs at Christmastime! A self-help book’s lessons brought to life!) Here again are the overlapping romances, the intersecting storylines, the ensemble of stars. And here again is the unifying conceit: Valentine’s Day in the City of Angels, an ideal occasion for proposals, break-ups, soul-searching, and promising first dates.

But as calculated as Love Actually and He’s Just Not That Into You may have been, neither was entirely devoid of charm or interest. Despite its Yuletide treacle, Actually had a facile script and a game cast. (No film with Hugh Grant, Alan Rickman, and Colin Firth could ever be a complete waste of time.) Despite its genesis in the self-help section of the bookstore, He’s Just Not That Into You had a cold-eyed realism about contemporary dating that’s rare in romantic comedies. Whereas Valentine’s Day has Valentine’s Day, whose weekend box office it was engineered to dominate, and absolutely nothing else.

Oh, it has Julia Roberts and Shirley MacLaine, Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway — not to mention Taylor Swift, America’s country-singing sweetheart, in her cinematic debut. But don’t be fooled by those big names: The ensemble cast is actually dominated by a peculiar Hollywood species, the famous-for-being-famous B-lister whose celebrity far outstrips his or her acting chops. That means front-and-center roles for Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel; it means major parts for the dreamy doctors from Grey’s Anatomy (Eric Dane and Patrick Dempsey), both of whom should stick to small-screen work; and worst of all, it means Ashton Kutcher, the ultimate good-natured nullity, in the closest thing the movie has to a leading role.

In fairness, it’s hard to tell the difference between the real stars and the second-rate ones, because everybody involved in the production seems to be sleepwalking toward his paycheck. (Swift is the exception: She can’t act, but at least she seems excited about the chance to gawk and giggle on the silver screen.) The overall effect is similar to that of those lame Japanese commercials that Hollywood stars do only for the money — except that Valentine’s Day is set in L.A., so they didn’t even have to leave home to appear in it.

Lest you think I’m being cynical, consider that Roberts was paid $3 million to grace this pseudo-movie with her presence, for a role that occupies about six on-screen minutes. That means she earned roughly $8,000 for every second of screen time, and $12,000 for every line of dialogue. It’s good work if you can get it, and everybody wins: The studio gets to pretend that this is a Julia Roberts movie, and Roberts gets to mail in a quickie “performance” in which she’s obviously counting down the ticks till she gets paid.

In a Newsweek interview, Marshall was remarkably upfront about what’s happening here. Asked why Hollywood is making more films featuring vignettes instead of narratives, he explained that “it’s become a business plan, because you can’t get a star for five months anymore. They don’t want to do that, and they’re expensive. But to get them to do a week or four days, it’s much easier.”

And that’s Valentine’s Day in a nutshell: not a movie, but a business plan.

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