Valentine’s Day: A Love Story?

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There is a scene in the 2010 star-packed film Valentine’s Day in which an eager young virgin attempts to set the stage for the ceremonial V-Card pull on V-Day, a decision he and his girlfriend, played by Emma Roberts, made based on convenience (they are 18, its Valentine’s Day, They have time, etc. – like it was just a matter of scheduling). He sneaks into her house to adjust the ambiance: rose petals, lighting, a nude serenade accompanied by a well-positioned guitar – an act that essentially amounts to throwing in even the kitchen sink. Instead of creating the special moment idealized on ABC “Family” serials like Secret Life Of The American Teenager (those special moments themselves garish caricatures of the real emotions and trepidation that is first time sexual exploration), it degenerates into slapstick that would seem like it came fresh from a lesser tome out of the American Pie franchise (say, The Book of Love perhaps), only less raunchy and somehow less funny. Rendering the situation even less important and into something forced and happening just because is the fact that when he literally runs into his girlfriend in the middle of the road wearing absolutely nothing, their planned tryst spoiled by the well-worn “Her Mom stopped home on her lunch break” trope, they simply move on with their day as if they had been acting without thought – simply stumbling through familiar motions.

This is what this movie does on the whole and it is why it may be the most appropriately titled film in the history of films (besides Star Wars. Actually…Space Wars might have been a better name. Somebody get on that). Like the holiday that inspired it – my body actually shivered typing out that word – Valentine’s Day happens almost because it has to, even if it didn’t need to be made. It’s the story of capitalism and especially the Hollywood model of mining the entirety of human experience for fodder to shove down the chute in order to keep the never-ending stream of shit coming out of the bottom to be labeled “Chocolate” and spooned into the waiting mouths of people who just want to consume any pictures that move and talk with recognizable stars attached (Ass pun! Unintentional I swear, even if I wish it hadn’t been).

In this model of “creation,” every holiday, television show, board game, video game, and movies from bygone times like the 80s are fair game, as are real historical events (whose reality are plunged into a state of decay the moment they get the star treatment. Don’t believe me? How many people get the image of Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in their head when they hear the names Cash and Carter? Or Val Kilmer when they think of Jim Morrison?) So it was inevitable that a film that dealt with the holiday and EVERYTHING associated with it would be made. It had to be, because unfortunately capitalism dictates that everything has to be monetized, because everything has a buyer.

That certainly seems like the modus operandi in Hollywood when it comes to the annual January and February releases. The first two months of the year are a strange nexus where cinemas show both the best there is with the release of the last of the Oscar hopefuls, including re-releases of films nominated but out of theaters shortly before nominations, and the worst offenses of the year, movies that somehow looked good enough on paper to get made AND attract big enough names to lend a little weight to them. No matter how much I root against the latter and despite how bad the reviews always are, box office figures show that people still want to see these movies. But why?

I can only think that there are multiple factors:

1) People are stupid.

2) People are blinded by names that are familiar and just like weird automatons they just consume almost reflexively.

3) Hollywood’s Marketing is better than I ever imagined (“The Best Romantic Comedy Since [Insert genre milestone].”

4) The economy is not as bad as I thought or at least people are willing to throw down money regardless simply to be entertained (a word I use with great trepidation).

5) And of course, the Valentine’s Day awkward movie date market.

The last part is particularly valid here, a good portion of the failures landing somewhere on the “romance” spectrum – a large portion of those also labeled as comedies. One need not look further than the current advertising blitz harking Winter’s Tale, Endless Love, Labor Day, and About Last Nightall replete with stars who have been known to have done much, much, better and all but Labor Day releasing within days of the holiday. (Vampire Academy also released the week before, apparently hoping to capture the tween paranormal-romance crowd who being so well-groomed in the rituals of the holiday that they will surely flock to an adaptation of the popular book series). Studio executives know that no matter what they put out that weekend, people are going to see it and it will not lose money…especially if it is something that women might want to see.

So what we have here is a movie that couldn’t be anything but bad, made specifically to capture the holiday magic and bask in glow of red and pink hues that bathe everything in February, and with so many familiar (some even award-winning) names that it would be hard for the average person who frequents romantic comedies in February or people looking for something to do on  date that wouldn’t require them to talk to each other until after the movie is done (unless it is about candy or popcorn) to say no. It was named after the holiday after all!

But did it have to be SO bad?

Yes. Yes it did.

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“What does Valentine’s Day mean to you?” – Kathy Bates to Jamie Foxx in Valentine’s Day

What is Valentine’s Day really? We say it is about love and romance and showing our sweetheart that we care. We think that it is a day to reaffirm the passion in our relationships and tend to the flames of amour, or else to find love. But is it that?

As Foxx (Oscar winner) replies to Bates (another Oscar winner) as Kelvin, the number two sports anchor who has been asked to cover the hot topic of Valentine’s Day in Los Angeles: “It gives me acid reflux, that’s what it means to me. I mean…we spend a lot of money, nobody really cares…its not even a real holiday.” As pessimistic as it sounds, it is hard to deny that much of the “holiday”, like every other holiday, has turned into a frenzy of spending and a mere display of its original meaning, rather than a celebration of the real thing.

This should come as no surprise: an image driven culture obsessed with appearance has turned one of the most beautiful emotions and the idea of devotion into little more than a monetized version that is too perfect to be the real thing. This is all the movie could show if its subject was Valentine’s Day, especially one in such an artificial place as Los Angeles. Other Romantic Comedies show a very similar and ultimately unrealistic depiction of “Love”,” but at least they start off with the possibility of actually expressing true emotion, a feat that standouts in the genre prove is able to be achieved. Expressing this Valentine’s version of emotion means that one will never get below the surface level and true emotional resonance will never be possible. This is the opposite of what we want from our cinema.

This movie was destined to be bad before it ever even was written, because it could ONLY come out in February and because the only romance it can show is the feigned “romance” of the movies and pop songs, but I can’t really blame director Garry Marshall or anyone involved in making the film for that destiny. How does one take something that has become so fake and forced and make it become a representation of the beautiful sentiment that they want it to be? The most you can do is celebrate sixty dollar bouquets, jewelry, chocolates and heart-shaped things (symbols of our emotional hearts yet red like the blood that fills our anatomical ones.) This is what they were working with.

I can however blame them for everything else that wrong with this movie, which is exactly everything else.

With so many stars and so many subplots within the greater story (which was that Valentine’s Day ISN’T a bad thing?), a cohesive or compelling story just wasn’t in the cards. Not one of the stories is interesting enough to make you want to return to it and I can’t figure out if the decision to go with the bloated anthology format was purposely done in order to distract from the fact that there were no interesting stories to tell here, or nothing seemed interesting because of the anthology. Even the most intriguing narrative thread involving Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper interacting on a very long flight loses steam the longer it goes on and the instant that you realize that Roberts is Edison’s mom (which is fairly early).

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The anthology part itself is frustrating because it is very possible to do it well. Movies like Crash, Traffic, Pulp Fiction, Babel, 21 Grams, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Happiness, and Trick ‘R Treat prove that the failures of Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and He’s Just Not That Into You aren’t due to any inherent problems with juggling multiple connecting stories…you just have to know how to juggle and not try to keep so many balls in the air if you aren’t capable to do so. Love Actually even demonstrates how one can go about making an interconnecting anthology about love that doesn’t suck.

Underperforming and under-utilization also plague this film from the get go. Garry Marshall (who you may recognize from many film roles including the Harvey Candy owner from A League Of Their Own who hires Tom Hanks’ character and ultimately wants to shut down the league) is an accomplished director who has been a part of some of the Romantic Comedy genre’s gems. As the director of Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride as well The Princess Diaries and Raising Helen, he is no slouch when it comes to crafting a cohesive story that has heart and humor. Not so much here, although much of the blame must lie with the writing team who also wrote other February abominations like the aforementioned, He’s Just Not That Into You, in addition to The Vow and of course, New Year’s Eve (which actually managed to lose money – I guess people DO have the ability to learn).

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Then there is the acting. I swear Marshall must have had some dirt on a few of the actors who he had already worked with, or else his name being attached led them to think that the project wasn’t as bad as it actually proved to be. There are five Oscar-winning actors in this movie. Five. Plus, there are two others who have been nominated (though to be fair, one of those wins and two of those nominations came AFTER this train wreck. Glad it didn’t hurt their chances). Nevertheless, even the great actors here operate far below the what they are capable of, even below what had seemed like prior lows. While Anne Hathaway may have been one of the few bright spots here, her storyline about moonlighting as a sex operator (who actually uses that with the internet around?) starts off pretty hilarious but ends up stale. Even her skills can’t help it as the she slowly sinks into slapstick more akin to Princess Diaries.

Julia Roberts is just awful as are both Taylors (I know they were supposed to be annoying, but even playing THAT role proves to be a reach for both, especially Swift), and also Eric Dane and Patrick Dempsey who seem incapable of acting in any manner other than the one they do on Grey’s Anatomy. The two Jessicas (Alba and Biel) are spectacularly horrible for the opposite reasons: Alba, who is supposed to be a cold, heartless bitch who breaks Ashton Kutcher’s heart, appears more stiff and flat than frigid; while Biel plays up the frantic aspect of her character far too much. She is a publicist to famous athletes and she loses her shit because of Valentine’s Day? I don’t want to drone on and on about how bad the writing and directing is, but in this instance you see how both of those contributing factors lead Biel down a path that makes Nicholas Cage look subtle by comparison.

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Let’s not forget Ashton Kutcher, the man who stands at the center of this debacle. He is the first character we see after the “Good Morning L.A.” montage that begins the film, and he is the last character we see before we are put out of our misery. His character also suffers from poor writing and possibly poor direction, but with Kutcher’s “skills,” does it really matter? He goes from proposing to Alba in the “Frolic Room” (something terribly tacky, yet important because it tells us that she might not be the right one for Kutcher’s hopeless romantic) to realizing that he loves his best friend all in the course of the day – all while dealing with the busiest day of the year for his flower business. And at no point does he show anything that could be considered close to emotion. I’d say he phoned it in, but I’ve seen him act before and it is pretty consistent with his usual work.

There is also an old-school mentality that borders on racism that I initially thought I was just imagining, but upon subsequent viewings (yes, I watched this several times which I am pretty sure makes me a scholar in it) has gotten even worse. Asians mix up their R’s and their L’s, and all Indians in a swank Indian restaurant dress like Hadji from Johnny Quest. I’m willing to wager that someone had to talk Marshall out of using buck teeth and a sedge hat. A naturalized citizen with a Bulgarian accent is lampooned by another naturalized but foreign-born character, but in keeping with the spirit of the movie, there is someone who speaks English with a Bulgarian accent also in the flower store to translate. Kutcher’s character himself comes across as slightly racist as he stumbles through some Spanish while chiding George Lopez (the only Hispanic in L.A. apparently) for not telling him that Alba was wrong for him. Given this, I’m surprised that the interracial relationship that gels by movie’s end was allowed to stay.

If that isn’t enough, Valentine’s Day also suffers from typical movie problems like implausibility. I know that it’s “Just a movie,” but some things were just too glaring to ignore: There is no way that in a city the size of Los Angeles, all these people end up connected in all the ways they are. There is also no way that we spend an entire day there and see not one speck of traffic dotting the landscape. The waiter would never act the way he did to Patrick Dempsey’s character because Dempsey was a surgeon (a heart surgeon DUH!) who has money and would have certainly had him fired. Would a radio station really make their midnight DJ (who sounded old as dirt) work all day on Valentine’s just because his name was Romeo? How would a young boy leave his house and make it all the way to the flower shop without getting snatched up and most likely raped? And no matter how busy she was, Jessica Biel would never be lacking a date on ANY day.

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It is also highly unlikely that a woman like Jessica Alba’s character, who clearly seemed to worry about what other women think of her, would not wear an engagement ring on Valentine’s Day to her office. Women just don’t do that, because after all, one of the most psychologically harmful consequences of the delirium that the purely consumptive nature of the holiday has cultivated is the display of ones status through their gifts received (or lack thereof).

Valentine’s Day acknowledges the pressures that we needlessly put on ourselves and our loved ones on the titular day. Whether you are a man who feels that he has to outdo himself from last year, or outdo your friends, or your significant other’s friend’s significant other, there is a pressure to impress. Perhaps it is just an extension of our normal courtship that resembles the mating dances of birds puffing up their feathers, but the pressure is there. I am certain that each year there are men trying to end relationships in March that they mistakenly started at Valentine’s Day because they felt it was something that they had to do. The entire Topher Grace subplot dealt with uncertain statuses and the turmoil it causes just because Valentine’s Day exists. Women have it just as bad, if not worse: if they aren’t feeling the need to compete with other women in terms of comparing gifts or the grand gestures from their men (or women), than they might be suffering a blow to their self-esteem if they can’t procure a date for the night.

For a brief moment, I thought that the movie was going to take a stance that the holiday didn’t really matter and that what was important was love in its truest forms. That’s where it was heading with Jennifer Garner’s lament about how the ladies feel, the Jessica Biel anti/party and Jamie Foxx’s list of reasons to dismiss it entirely. It was like they were admitting how forced it all was in the end, however, everyone who wasn’t a villain got the their happy endings. Even the haters were won over with that magic of love and the holiday.

Valentines Day movie image JENNIFER GARNER and ASHTON KUTCHER

Couples fought and broke up. A man cheated on his wife. A waiter committed fraud. A nurse was bullied by Garner’s pretty face and sunny disposition. People who had bad dates beat a pinata. Some dude didn’t get laid but possibly has really good side prospects with the girl’s mom. A babysitter should have been fired. A high-powered sports agent masturbated at work while verbally berating a faceless stranger. A wealthy florist was probably emotionally cheating for years. There were gay athletes. A child has an unhealthy obsession with older women, probably related to his mom abandoning him and his father not being around or possibly being dead. A celebrity was paid for her song use with a part in a film for she and her boyfriend. And somewhere in the night, a sleep deprived old man shouted “Let’s get Naked!”

Isn’t THAT what matters?

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.

What matters is that it made its money back opening weekend and real people who sit in real traffic in L.A., who are possibly articulate Asians and/or other ethnic people weren’t fired.

A February miracle. 

Let’s Get Naked!

Author: Josh Richer

Josh lives in NYC (OK OK! Staten Island) and would love it if you employed him. Send Josh an email