Monday, March 15, 2010

Valentine's Day

Romantic comedies depend heavily on the likability of their characters, which puts Valentine’s Day at an instant disadvantage. Valentine’s Day is the latest in a long line of movies with multiple, slowly-converging plot threads, but the more characters there are, the harder it becomes for the audience to invest emotionally. This challenging structure has worked well for some dramas, but as far as romantic comedies go, Love Actually is the shining exception to the rule. Valentine’s Day feels like a hastily-written love letter to Rom-Com clich├ęs.

Set on a sunny, smog-free Valentine’s Day in the city of Los Angeles, the film follows many different characters from sun-up to sun-down, showing how their various love lives unfold. The most engaging story follows Julia (the consistently wonderful Jennifer Garner), her lover, Dr. Harrison (Patrick Dempsey) and her best friend, Reed (Ashton Kutcher). Reed discovers that Harrison is married, thereby making Julia “the other woman.” Reed tries his best to convince Julia that Harrison is up to no good and even tries to win her hand in the process.

There are star-studded casts, and then there’s the cast of Valentine’s Day. The film boasts as many recognizable faces as Love Actually, if not more, but the high level of talent fails to improve the lackluster dialogue (you know it’s a crowded cast when Julia Roberts has a small role). If anything, the movie suffocates under its own star power, cramming celebrities in where they don’t belong. The role of a young cheerleader played by Taylor Swift would have been better left to an unknown actress who could have convincingly played the part. Swift has found tremendous success in her singing career, but let’s just say that acting isn’t her surprise talent.

Because of the widespread plot, Valentine’s Day feels wildly uneven. A couple of story threads are interesting, some are neither here nor there, and the rest are just plain weak. All are familiar. Nothing stands out as memorable and original, which yet again makes Love Actually look like a masterpiece in comparison. Instead of falling in love multiple times, I felt like I was re-watching multiple romantic comedies I had forgotten about years ago.

Garry Marshall, a master of comedy since The Dick Van Dyke Show, directed Valentine’s Day. As Penny Marshall’s brother, Garry carries great comedy in his family genes, but his pacing and tone fall flat this time around. Moments obviously intended to elicit laughs failed to make me even chuckle half-heartedly. For instance, Anne Hathaway plays a businesswoman who moonlights as a phone sex operator. While out and about in public situations, her phone will ring, and she’ll have to pick up and engage in embarrassing conversation. The concept sounds promising, but the execution fails to amuse.

Unfortunately, the biggest missing piece here is the most important one: the feeling of being in love. I never once swooned or sighed, and I’ve got some very tug-on-able heartstrings. Valentine’s Day doesn’t capture the unbearable bliss of being head over heels in love. It shows various types of romance but doesn’t make us experience them. The story spans so many situations and age groups that it had the potential to communicate the sexual excitement of young love, the agony of failed love, or the comfort of lasting love. Instead, I mostly saw a bunch of stars pretending to be in love.

I know I’ve cited Love Actually many times here, but when an amateur performs a well-known piece at a concert, you can’t help but think of the definitive version. Garry Marshall is no amateur, but Valentine’s Day feels like an amateur effort. Romantic Comedies have to get two things right to work (the two qualities for which the genre is named), and Valentine’s Day comes up short on both.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some sexual material and brief partial nudity.

Kids should be at least thirteen, as there is some sexual dialogue and a few sensual scenes. The brief nudity comes when a guy strategically covers himself with a guitar, and his would-be seduction goes terribly wrong. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly sexy or funny.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finally, the Oscar goes to a woman

The 82nd Academy Awards (dubbed by the co-hosts as “the biggest night in Hollywood since last night”) have come and gone. It was a solid show, if not occasionally uneven, and though the evening was largely devoid of surprises, it did deliver some memorable moments.

My favorite film of the year, The Hurt Locker, took home the Best Picture and Best Director awards, marking the first time that a woman has won an Oscar for film direction. James Cameron’s Avatar is a rollicking spectacle that rightly claimed the technical awards, but Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker really was the year’s best film: an intelligent drama that perfectly captured the tension of the current conflict in Iraq.

The Oscar telecast began with a musical number by Neil Patrick Harris, and I imagine that I wasn’t the only viewer wondering why he wasn’t hosting. Harris has seen a huge career boost over the last five years, and I’ll be surprised if the Academy doesn’t tap him to host in the near future.

The two seasoned comedians who did host, Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, provided some laughs but weren’t as humorous as I had hoped. More than play off of each other, the two just alternated one-liners. They didn’t feel much like a comedic team, and I had anticipated a stronger charisma. Again, they had plenty of funny jokes, but switching to the two-host format should have brought something new to the table. I didn’t see anything from the two hosts that couldn’t have come from one host.

Though the acting awards all went as expected, the acceptance speeches were outstanding. I can’t remember a previous set of winners that gave more appreciative, sincere remarks, but then again, these were special circumstances. None of the four winners had won Oscars previously, and three of the four had never been nominated. The two supporting-performance winners, Mo’Nique and Christoph Waltz, carried their films in unusual ways. Discussions of both Precious and Inglourious Basterds will often turn to the strength of those supporting performances.

I was thrilled to see the continuation of the tradition begun last year in which each lead-acting nominee receives a personalized tribute from a colleague onstage. Each speech was heartfelt, and the tributes really do make it more of an honor to just be nominated. Sandra Bullock gave perhaps the strongest speech of the night, and everyone seemed pleased that Jeff Bridges’ fifth nomination finally did the trick.

My personal favorite moment was the special tribute to John Hughes. About Hughes, Roger Ebert recently wrote, “His films seemed good at the time, and in these dreary days, they seem miraculous.” That is so true. Few comedies get funnier and more magical over time, especially comedies built around teen angst, but Hughes’ charming coming-of-age pieces have only improved. At the end of a film montage, several iconic actors from Hughes’ movies stepped onstage and paid personal tributes.

During the “In Memoriam” recap reel of last year’s deaths, Farrah Fawcett’s name was conspicuously absent. It was apparently nothing more than an honest-to-goodness oversight, but especially in light of how her death was overshadowed by Michael Jackson’s back in June, her omission here was unfortunate.

All in all, it was a good awards show with worthy recipients. The evening’s lasting legacy will almost certainly be that a woman finally won for Best Director. Barbara Streisand, who I still say should have been nominated as Best Director for Yentl in 1983, tore open the envelope and said, “Well, the time has come.”