Star-studded and glowing with director Garry Marshall‘s gooey warmth, Valentine’s Day is an unabashedly feel-good film with enough humanity to balance out the gloss. With its ensemble cast and intertwining stories of love and heartbreak, the movie shares storytelling elements with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, but has the lovey-dovey sensibility that’s evident in Marshall’s vast canon of work, from Beaches to Pretty Woman.
The movie, which opens Friday, takes place on V-Day in Los Angeles and (unfortunately) uses a faux radio personality to set the scene and the mood. It’s early morning in the city of angels, and the opening montage features life-affirming scenes likes mommies jogging and gardeners rushing to their posh, domestic destinations. As the city wakes up for the day of love, a young, good-looking guy living on the L.A. canals psyches himself up to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Reed’s (Ashton Kutcher) adorable, awkward proposal speech is met by a lukewarm response from Morley (Jessica Alba, as a blonde) — which sets the stage for euphoria and curve balls on one of modern society’s cruelest days.
Valentine’s Day is Marshall’s latest ode to our impenetrable, cultural belief in fairy tale romance, even in the confines of everyday life. To his credit, and to that of screenwriter Katherine Fugate (Army Wives), the film’s set of plot threads is cohesive enough to absorb high-profile actors into one orchestrated body of mostly well-cast parts. From Queen Latifah’s turn as a tough sports agent to Jamie Foxx’s role as a sportscaster stuck with the human-interest beat, each component of the larger pastiche is a gem. Even New Moon hunk Taylor Lautner and his on-screen GF Taylor Swift added their own special, make-out-heavy moments to the film that simultaneously poked fun at teenagers while reminding us why high-school romance was so much fun.
Still other cast members and their characters brought consistent and high-quality performances to the film include the chiseled Eric Dane as conflicted football player Sean Jackson, Topher Grace and Anne Hathaway as cute young things who have a rocky start to their nascent relationship, Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts as travelers on a long flight to L.A., and Jennifer Garner and Patrick Dempsey as a mis-matched couple. Ever the equitable romantic, Marshall also offers characters at more extreme ends of the age spectrum, including Shirley MacLaine and newcomer Bryce Robinson (aka the cutest kid on the big screen).
While each character stumbles through their own romantic ecstasy and agony, Valentine’s Day reflects our collective relationship with romance, becoming in many ways a self-conscious wink to Hollywood itself. The regal, larger-than-life qualities of most of the movie’s stars roadblock any potential there may have been for achieving realism. But the beauty of Valentine’s Day is the very shiny perfection that never forgets that it is a perfectly symmetrical, talent-heavy package.
The film’s magic, though, is that it almost never sinks under its own weight or confuses critical mass with quality storytelling. The combined deftness and savvy of Marshall, Fugate and their all-star cast makes it OK to indulge in a cheesy, seasonal package. Even more appealing, though, is that as their combined efforts allows us to soak up the film’s magic, it also encourages us to believe — even if for just 90+ minutes in the dark — that the real thing is really is possible, no matter what day of the year it may be.