Even before Valentine’s Day has reached the theaters, gimlet-eyed observers are already comparing it to the 2003 British film Love Actually, both movies being scattershot omnibus comedies that tell multiple romantic stories involving huge casts of well-known actors.
The Hollywood movie – which takes place on a single Feb. 14 in Los Angeles – doesn’t sell romance in the same big, toothy, please-love-me way as its British counterpart, which is good. Still, it feels undernourished and disposable despite its plethora of A-list stars. I thought I’d discuss the movie by breaking down its plots one by one and ranking them, from most entertaining storyline to least:
1) A U.S. Army officer on leave (Julia Roberts) and a businessman (Bradley Cooper) seated next to each other on a plane gently flirt with each other to pass the time on a long international flight. Roberts isn’t the most convincing servicewoman, but since we don’t see her in her military capacity, that doesn’t matter much. The two actors have a pleasing, soft rapport with each other. This plot comes to two surprise endings, and the one involving Roberts’ character is the movie’s one affecting moment.
2) A schoolteacher named Julia (Jennifer Garner) has an affair with a dreamy doctor (Patrick Dempsey), then is devastated to find out that he’s already married. Julia has the best-formed character arc here, and the role plays to Garner’s strengths as she projects Julia’s insecurities about her taste in men and whether they’re setting her up for yet another heartbreak. This is the one plotline that could have worked as a separate movie on its own.
3) Sports agency mailroom employee Jason (Topher Grace) has a fiery tryst with office temp Liz (Anne Hathaway), but his romantic feelings are imperiled when he discovers her sidelight as a phone sex worker. Hathaway eclipses Grace rather easily, giving a quicksilver performance as someone who shifts personas whenever her phone rings. The movie’s PG-13 rating keeps the humor from being as raunchy as it should have been, but there are still some funny touches here, like Liz using office supplies to imitate the sound of spanking over the phone.
4) Offscreen couple Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift portray a lovey-dovey, not-too-bright high-school couple. Nothing really happens in this story, but the two Taylors score some slapstick laughs during an interlude when they run track during P.E. class.
5) While everyone around aging pro quarterback Sean (Eric Dane) thinks he’s agonizing over whether to retire from football, he’s really trying to decide whether to come out of the closet. The gay thing, which is supposed to be a big revelation, is poorly handled, and screenwriter Katherine Fugate misses some easy chances to speculate on the unique pressures that an openly gay athlete would face. This is a huge opportunity squandered, and Dane’s inexpressive performance doesn’t help.
6) Sean’s lonely, neurotic publicist Kara (Jessica Biel) has to reconsider her longstanding hatred of Valentine’s Day when a local sports anchor (Jamie Foxx) offers himself up to her. The actors are game, but the character of a career woman who’s all bent out of shape over her nonexistent love life is a tired cliché indeed, and Biel isn’t nearly resourceful enough to rescue it.
7) Julia’s platonic best friend, a florist named Reed (Ashton Kutcher), proposes to his girlfriend Morley (Jessica Alba), who has second thoughts after she agrees to marry him. This plotline takes up more screen time than any other, and though Kutcher demonstrates a non-obnoxious soft-pedal charm here, we don’t really see what draws Reed to either Morley or Julia, and there’s little chemistry between the actors involved. Instead, we waste a lot of time with Reed mooning about what makes romantic happiness, with one of his delivery guys (George Lopez) chipping in woolly advice. This story should have been reduced.
8) Septuagenarian couple Estelle and Edgar (Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo) plan to renew their wedding vows soon after their 50th anniversary, but a long-buried secret threatens to derail them. This plotline is given only cursory treatment, though director Garry Marshall tries to whip up a romantic atmosphere by staging their reconciliation in front of a giant screen playing one of MacLaine’s old movies (specifically, the 1958 melodrama Hot Spell). Nice try, but it doesn’t work.
9) A teenager named Grace (Emma Roberts), who babysits for Edgar and Estelle’s 10-year-old grandson, meticulously plans with her boyfriend Alex (Carter Jenkins) to lose their virginity to each other before they go off to college. Nothing interesting comes of this.
10) Said grandson Edison (Bryce Robinson) – who’s also Julia’s pupil – runs around town desperately trying to get Reed or someone else to send flowers to his Valentine at school. If you hate precocious kids in movies, this will confirm it. If you don’t, this will make you start.
All of this adds up to a mild, mostly forgettable moviegoing experience that looks noticeably pale next to the recent (500) Days of Summer, which did much more with both the romance and the L.A. setting. Valentine’s Day isn’t disagreeable, but with all the star power it’s packing, the movie should have done more.