Valentine’s Day is a time of romance, endearment, and devotion. “Valentine’s Day” is a Garry Marshall film that’s unpleasant, occasionally mean-spirited, and ripples with Marshall’s prehistoric sense of humor. One’s a dubious holiday intended to boost the power of passion (along with card and candy sales), while the other is an insufferable feature film that’s miraculously saved by a few charming co-stars. I’m sure Marshall is a sweet fellow, but his movies have become clueless, klutzy abominations, with “Valentine’s Day” an affront to the art of love, somehow roping in an all-star cast to help sell the pure ick.
It’s Valentine’s Day in Los Angeles, and the locals are gearing up for all the romantic potential of the day. Florist Reed (Ashton Kutcher) has proposed to hesitant girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba); schoolteacher Julia (Jennifer Garner) is hoping to surprise her doctor boyfriend (Patrick Dempsey), who she thinks is away on business; football legend Sean (Eric Dane) is considering the next step of his career after a bad breakup; Holden (Bradley Cooper) and Kate (Julia Roberts) bond over a long plane ride; Liz (Anne Hathaway) struggles to maintain her moonlighting gig as a phone sex employee as she enters a new relationship with Midwestern boy Jake (Topher Grace); sports reporter Kelvin (Jamie Foxx) snuggles up to publicist Kara (Jessica Biel) on a day she openly bemoans; Grace (Emma Roberts) considers losing her virginity before college; and Estelle (Shirley MacLaine) and Edgar (Hector Elizondo) encounter a brush with infidelity after 50 years of marriage.
“Valentine’s Day” features a plethora of subplots and a cast of plenty, and the film feels fittingly endless. Considering how much this picture dances around from place to place, juggling four emotional speeds at once, it’s astonishing how quickly Marshall’s comedic death grip can render a slam-dunk concept utterly lifeless. I suppose if you’ve already seen the dramatically bonkers “Georgia Rule,” maybe the curdled execution of “Valentine’s Day” isn’t such a surprise.
Marshall sets out to mold a benevolent movie on the unpredictable nature of love, and how the holiday is set up strictly to remind people of their romantic personal inventory, often in the cruelest manner possible. It’s a bizarre volley of woe and bliss, which is suitably tangled up in Katherine Fugate’s breathless screenplay, shuttling a horde of characters around the City of Angels as they spar with fate. It’s a sitcom script, with every role given a singular emotional beat; the writing seems more attracted to caricature than realism, which is precisely why the film it’s blatantly ripping off, 2003’s “Love Actually,” was a tonal whirlwind marvel. Fugate invents undemanding lay-ups of meet cutes and Hollywood neuroses to stitch together her screenplay, with lasting, morally introspective characters getting in the way of the syrup.
Of course, if it’s simple-minded and open to broad comedic cutaways, it’s catnip to Marshall. More an observer than a leader, the director barely breaks a sweat with “Valentine’s Day,” keeping the characters implausibly riled up while he sorts out his beloved Borscht Belt routines. Strangely, while the film is reaching out to the audience for a hug, almost none of the characters deserve such a warm reception. “Valentine’s Day” deals with infidelity and broken hearts, but it’s all superficial exploration, creating grating personalities that fall into loathsome, smug Los Angeles stereotypes. Marshall tries to warm up the picture with travelogue cinematography and snippets of babies kissing babies, but the bitterness is hard to scrape away, including a weirdly hateful attitude toward Jake and his Indiana origins. It’s hard to sympathize with these characters when most act like total irredeemable boobs, while the rest only remain onscreen for mere minutes.
And laughs? Forget it. Marshall’s idea of wit is to pump Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time” while one of the virgin characters prepares for their first sexual odyssey. Casting Taylor Swift in a small role as a smitten teen only accelerates the headache, with the embryonic singer given free range to test out her deplorable improvisational skills.
Save for Garner and her possibly demonic skill of making any line of dialogue sincere, “Valentine’s Day” plods along, assuming it’s imparting critical lessons on life and love. Instead, it reduces romance to a four-letter word. Save your money and valuable time (the picture runs 122 minutes) and treat your loved one to an exceptional Valentine’s Day experience. Handing precious life and coin over to Garry Marshall feels downright perverse by comparison.