So here’s what drives me nuts about Hollywood, what sticks in my craw, frustrates me to no end, makes me want to swear off the multiplex after decades of devoted movie junkie-dom, throwing down my hard-earned, recessionally downsized cash at the box office: Movies like Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day is the worst kind of cynically constructed, demographically engineered, paint-by-the-numbers piece of poppycock imaginable. It’s cobbled together with bits from movies past, from Crash to High Fidelity to Four Weddings and a Funeral to He’s Just Not That Into You to Love Actually. In fact, it’s Love Actually redux, from the motherless kid to the sex workers to the guy frantically running through the airport. Except that Love Actually was set in London right before Christmas, and Valentine’s Day is set in Los Angeles, on, um, a different holiday. Then there’s this: Love Actually, while heavily formulaic, worked. It was actually good. Valentine’s Day, also heavily formulaic, does not work. It is, actually, not good. At all.
This being Los Angeles, director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) and those faceless studio execs made sure that they had every potential marketing demo covered. And since it’s an ensemble comedy, acting-wise, no one has to do any heavy lifting. Everybody wins! For the tweens and the teens, we have the Two Taylors (Swift and Lautner). For the guys, there’s Anne Hathaway and the Four Js: Julia (Roberts), Jennifer (Garner) and Jessica and Jessica (Alba and Biel). For the ladies, there’s Ashton Kutcher, Bradley Cooper and Grey’s Anatomy’s McDreamy and McSteamy (Patrick Dempsey and Eric Dane).
Then, for the senior set, there’s Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo; for the Latinos, there’s George Lopez, Elizondo and a bleached-blond Alba. (Ca-ching! Cross marketing!). For the South Asians, there’s a now-obligatory Bollywood dance scene, and, for the colored folks, we’ve got Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah. (There’s even a little love shown to the LGBT folks, too.)
But beneath all this feel-good, 21st-century, We-Are-The-World, faux egalitarianism, beats a retro heart. (A heart that apparently functions a lot like John Mayer’s “David Duke” man bits.) Here, white folks, particularly white women, serve as the main love interests, while people of color are relegated to the sidelines, throwing out one-liners or dispensing words of wisdom for the clueless pale people. Then there’s Queen Latifah, in a class of her own, taking the angry black woman meme to another level: “They call me Bipolar Paula,” she snarls, “Don’t.”
I guess we should call it cinematic progress when Foxx gets to kiss the white girl. Or not.
Valentine’s Day opens with a panoramic view of L.A.: A corps de ballet of white moms running with jogging strollers; a symphony of sprinklers; a chorus line of gardeners pulling their trucks into carefully manicured driveways. It’s a world cast in a rosy glow, where characters don’t speak so much as they make pronouncements: “Valentine’s Day for single women is a big, cosmic bitch slap.” “Romantic love is the most shocking thing out there.”
Sometimes these pronouncements serve as foreshadowing, painfully obvious foreshadowing: It’s never a good sign when a character announces that she’s surprising her new beau for Valentine’s Day. Or when someone declares that a loved one is too good for him. Problem is, the writing is so ham-handed that even with the most presumptive of plot points, the filmmakers don’t trust you to discover things on your own. They pile on the predictable and then bludgeon you with the obvious.
Since this is an ensemble rom-com, storylines and characters interlock, with everyone connecting and disconnecting, often to strained effect. Kutcher, at best a vapid actor, is the central figure from which all story lines spin: He’s a hopelessly besotted florist whose shop serves as ground zero for most of the characters floating in and out. He’s in love with Alba, his live-in lady, and so proposes to her on the most romantic of romantic days. She accepts, half-heartedly. (Cue the ominous music.)
Jamie Foxx is the self-proclaimed “chocolate” sportcaster who hates Valentine's Day until, he doesn’t. Jessica Biel is the chocolate-loving publicist who also hates that Hallmark holiday until, of course, she doesn’t. Factor in a baseball bat and a heart-shaped piñata, misfired cues and the aforementioned Bollywood dance number. Trust me when I tell you, you know where things will end up: Love will conquer all because every pot has its lid and all you need is love, sweet love, blah, blah, blah, blah. Blech.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer. Follow her on Twitter.