Saturday, December 10, 2011

First off, don’t we all have enough of a challenge making New Year’s Eve a holiday we actually enjoy? Well meaning Director Gary Marshall’s latest holiday offering, while clearly attempting to get us into the spirit of hope and optimism, falls so short it feels like a cinematic hangover without the delightful drunk the night before.

Watching New Year’s Eve is a bit like watching an old episode of Love Boat, only on land, with cell phones, and with a much bigger budget. A budget big enough to attract actors and actresses who should know better and aim higher. There are Oscar winners in this movie, for pity’s sake!

It’s most disappointing for those expecting to see anything akin to Love Actually. That movie is the perennial high bar Gary Marshall clearly attempts to reach, first with 2010’s Valentine’s Day, and less failingly (by a small margin) with New Year’s Eve, partly because with VD we’ve been numbed into lowered expectations, and because they make New York look so darn holiday festive in this… Those looking for a mostly feel-good holiday trifle won’t leave entirely deflated, but might do better to DVR one of the dozens of Hallmark seasonal offerings and toast to saving the cost of admission.

Let me be clear here. I have actually made Siren Spouse sit through a number of cheesy made-for-TV holiday movies, so I walked into this movie with an open chick flick loving girlie mind, having seen and not having thoroughly hated Valentine’s Day. I still wanted to turn back the clock to get my valuable holiday viewing time back.

What we have is a mishmash of mini-stories and subplots, made into uber-schmaltz by trying to take about 10 stories that have already been made far better in far less cliched ways as full, feature-length films, then shortening, simplifying, and whitewashing them so as to reduce each one to forgettable, incoherent and plastic messes.

Jon Bon Jovi and Katherine Heigl are a rock star and his jilted lover, a catering chef who spends the evening of her biggest event outside the kitchen. I don’t think so. Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron are a lonely woman and the fast talking smart aleck she hires to help her cross items off her bucket list, a plot line which could have become a more interesting Harold and Maude sort of story, but sadly went nowhere. Sarah Jessica Parker and Abigail Breslin play a mother chasing her rule-breaking daughter into the festivity fray. Among many other plots are Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele as strangers trapped on an elevator, which is oft-listed as the No. 1 subject to avoid as a fiction writer. I hope the screenwriter and niece of I Dream of Jeannie’s Barbara Eden, Katherine Fugate, was trapped in an elevator and threatened by the producers into these meandering plot messes. It would be her only excuse. The actors are so much better than the script, they almost make up for it. Almost.

On the plus side, if you approach the movie with a forgiving holiday spirit, and you are a huge fan of any two actors in New Year’s Eve, you can bask in the obvious enjoyment the clearly unfazed cast had play-acting with each other, and in work they can be pleased makes an inexcusably bad script tolerable. New York looks beautiful, and viewers can let themselves get carried into the stories through the many lovely images of the city dressed in it’s holiday best.

Bear in mind, however, when you go expecting to see and enjoy your favorite star, no one actor has much screen time. What does get lots of screen time is the shameless parade of product placements. This makes the viewers repeatedly wonder if director Marshall’s warm hearted intent to spread holiday love was split with his intent to spread advertising. Cynicism has no place in this movie. Witness the veritable sea of blue Nivea lotion party hats in Times Square, and loving visual caress of a billboard pimping the Sherlock Holmes sequel, also being released by Warner Brothers. If the movie survives more than a week in theaters, that particular placement is likely to backfire into a stampede of viewers leaving one screening mid-film for the one next door.

There are a few nuts that blind-squirrel-director Marshall finds in the protracted 118 minutes, due mostly to the quality of actors present. Robert DeNiro finds a way to show his talents even in some truly bad movies, (sadly, a list that continues to increase), and does so as a regretful cancer patient looking back on his life. Aston Kutcher is believable as he builds a crush on fellow trappie Michelle, and he’ll have a hefty portion of gals in the audience wishing they’d been trapped with him instead. On the other hand, those are two of the weakest plots in the movie. With them, and a few other scenes, we forget how bad the film as a whole is, but we never forget enough not to wait for the DVD.

I’m assuming Gary Marshall has a long list of projects lined up for the near future. We can all look forward to Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, then on to President’s Day and Secretary’s Day. I say, JUST SAY NO now to another movie that believes it can spray celebrity all over a shallow, sub-par script and believe we’ll toast and drink it up like a kid concocted schlock cocktail.

New Year’s is the time we all celebrate that we’ve lived long enough to know better. We learned to ask for our drinks, our holidays, and our movies served to us with a little more cohesion, depth, and even panache. None of these actors will stop working after this movie. I advise we wait until then to see them. Go if you must. It won’t kill you. But as this New Year’s approaches, let’s all decide we can ask for more. Let’s ask for panache and get it.

Here are a few feel good optimistic movies with star ensemble casts, one that even has some actors from this movie, and three that capture the essence of NYC beautifully. I recommend:

• HAIRSPRAY: John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, James Marsden, Zac Efron, and a ton more greats, having a blast in this funky sweet musical confection with depth.

• ON THE TOWN (1949): Here’s a movie that shows having fun in New York, with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, and Vera Ellen. It also Betty Garrett, who was a regular on Gary Marshall’s “Laverne and Shirley.” This movie is directed by Gene Kelly and the costumes and dancing alone are worth a viewing.

• HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE (1953): Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe and featuring William Powell (of Thin Man fame). Three of the hottest women in the history of film, having fun together and finding love in the big city.

• BEST IN SHOW (2000): A list of great star ensemble casts wouldn’t be complete without a Christopher Guest movie featuring his wonderful group in this semi-improvised satire of the world of championship dog breeding. Michael McKean (also from Laverne and Shirley! Take that, Gary!) Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Jennifer Coolidge, Jane Lynch, and Parker Posey all join Guest in this hilarious dog-centric mockumentary.

• MOONSTRUCK (1987): Yes, it centers on Cher, but the ensemble cast including Nicolas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Danny Aiello, John Mahoney, and Vincent Gardenia all conspire to treat us to some of the true magic New York has to offer, and it takes place around the holidays!