Something seemed familiar to me as I watched Garry Marshall’s New York-based follow-up to his multi-star, multi-story LA-set romantic comedy, Valentine’s Day. It was something that went beyond the predictability of its sitcom-ish formulas and check-list of romantic comedy conventions, and it finally hit me when the wonderful Sofía Vergara appeared on screen. Part of what makes “Modern Family” so delightful is the way its characters address, tweak, and transcend the usual comedic stereotypes. But it became sadly clear that all Marshall and screenwriter Katherine Fugate can think of to do with this beautiful and talented actress is make her into a caricatured Latina hot mama. And that was when I figured it out. She was Charo and we were on a big budget version of The Love Boat. Like the television series that ran from the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s, “New Year’s Eve” is an assortment of stories about love featuring a lot of big stars and with depth and imagination and sincerity that can only be measured with micrometers.
But that doesn’t mean that it is not entertaining, first for the fun of seeing so many stars cross the screen and second because so much is going on that the weakest parts are over before you realize how weak they are. It would be quicker to list the stars who are not in this movie than those who are. Oscar-winners Robert De Niro (as a terminally ill patient in the hospital), Halle Berry (as his nurse), and Hillary Swank (as the person in charge of the ball-dropping, Ryan Seacrest-led festivities in Times Square) are joined by Tony-winner Cherry Jones as owner of a music company, plus television luminaries Seth Meyers of “SNL” as an expectant father, Sarah Jessica Parker (as a wardrober who works with the Rockettes), and “Glee’s” Lea Michelle. Then there’s “Little Miss Sunshine’s” Abigail Breslin in way too much mascara as a young teen who rebels when her mother says she cannot go to Times Square, rom-com princess Katherine Heigel as a caterer at a fancy party, rocker-turned-actor John Bon Jovi as a rock star, rapper-turned actor Common, and “High School Musical’s” Zac Efron as a delivery guy who delivers more than the mousy secretary played by Michelle Pfeiffer expects. Returning “Valentine’s Day” stars (playing new characters) Ashton Kutcher is a guy who hates New Year’s Eve and gets stuck in an elevator and Jessica Biel is a woman who wants to have the first baby born in 2012 so she can win some money. And Josh Duhamel is the guy who is trying to get back to Manhattan to find the mystery woman he kissed at midnight a year ago. And we also get Hector Elizondo, of course, who is for Marshall what John Ratzenberger is to Pixar, a lucky charm who appears in every film and is always welcome.
It benefits from dropping some of the cruder elements that marred “Valentine’s Day” but even as a fairy tale it goes over the top with not one but two characters called on for impromptu televised appearances that has a tired, crowded, over-excited and tipsy New York audience aww-ing and applauding like parents at a kindergarten Christmas pageant. All these people and situations leave no room for stories or characters, just snippets that barely have time to make an impression and the casting itself becomes a distraction with meaningless “wait, wasn’t that…?” appearances in the briefest of roles. That’s just as well, as the stalled elevator and race to give birth at 12:01 do not have much to offer and the dialog has some syrupy lines about forgiveness and second chances that got unintended laughs from the audience. Even at just a few moments, Duhamel’s efforts to get back into the city drag on too long with a pointless segment about an RV ride with a preacher’s family. But by the time he makes it to his mystery date, though, we are on his side. (Am I the only one who thought it was not a great match, though?) As in the last film, there is poignant scene involving military fighting overseas. Pfeiffer, Berry, and De Niro manage to create some genuinely touching moments out of sheer star power. The outtakes over the credit sequence at the end are the best part, though they remind us how much more these stars are capable of. A better title might be “Groundhog Day” because it sure feels like we’ve seen it all before.
Parents should know that this film has some sexual humor including a few crude terms and references to body parts and childbirth and some brief strong language (one f-word). There is a sad parental death. Characters drink alcohol. A strength of this movie is that a first kiss is taken very seriously.
Family discussion: Which couple was the most interesting and why? Which one surprised you the most?
If you like this, try: “Valentine’s Day” and some of the films featuring these stars like “Hairspray,” “Analyze This,” “Married to the Mob,” “Robots,” and “Transformers”