In Pretty Woman, director Garry Marshall's personal cinematic high score, the opening credits close (and the closing credits open) with the voice of a street freak, barely noticeable in wide shot, chanting an absurd mantra: "Welcome to Hollywood, land of dreams!" Twenty years later, Marshall dips into the same well to bookend his embarrassingly star-studded stiff, Valentine's Day. Both movies brand the city of Los Angeles as the ground zero of romantic fantasy.
This time, the disembodied voice of a radio DJ promises the people of L.A. that he'll soundtrack their day with "the songs you love, and the songs you love to love to." And the movie is a kind of jukebox musical — a greatest rom-com hits compilation painted over with layers of gloss, as if in the hope that the pastiche won't show.
The credits read like a red-carpet roll call: Jessica Alba! Jessica Biel! Julia Roberts! Two guys who used to be on That 70's Show, and also that one lady and the other guy from Alias! The stars are lined up on either side of the romanticism/cynicism divide: For every sap-sucking flower-shop owner (Ashton Kutcher) — who in the 24-hour span of the film gets engaged, gets dumped, and realizes that he and his best gal pal might be More Than Friends — there's a sportscaster (Jamie Foxx) who claims to table his "playerness from New Year's to St. Patrick's just so I can avoid this day," and who, by V-Day's end, is reeling from an attack of sudden onset romance.
Though occasionally teasing the notion that maybe the titular Hallmark holiday isn't all it's cracked up to be, Valentine's Day inevitably barrels forth in its real mission: to make sure every reasonably morally sound resident of Los Angeles finds True Love before the clock strikes midnight.
What thin story there is was conceived by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, the pair responsible for He's Just Not That Into You; where that surprisingly sober film had the benefit (and backbone) of polemic, Valentine's Day has relentless, nonsensical forward motion. The characters' minor relationship hardships are cursory, and watching the actors go through the repetitive motions is exhausting. With so many stars and only so much celluloid to fill, each boldface name has barely more than a cameo's worth of screen time — hardly enough for even the Oscar winners to fully flesh out a character.
Ironically, where Valentine's Day really suffers is in comparison to the film that Marshall seems so intent on referencing. Valentine's Day uses the Beverly Wilshire as a key location, as did Pretty Woman; Marshall even restages a scene in which a sex worker plies her trade sitting on the back of a bus bench in front of the hotel, with his Princess Diaries ingénue Anne Hathaway taking Julia Roberts's place as the gold-hearted working girl. But Valentine's Day has none of the classical competency of Pretty Woman, in which Richard Gere's corporate raider and Roberts's hooker spend long stretches of the film talking and touching, getting to know each other, slowly building up the argument that there's nothing more important in the universe than their everlasting happiness.
Valentine's Day's rote episodic construction reduces each of its couplings to a couple of shopworn money shots, flattening any potential for their chemistry or our vicarious pleasure. Shoddy enough within its primary genre, Valentine's Day becomes deadly in its attempt to be a Los Angeles Ensemble Movie, in which divine coincidence rules the day as archetypes from different walks of life (including invariably wise ethnic stereotypes) intersect and overhead shots of a freeway interchange drive the point home. Think of it as the Crash of romance, the Short Cuts of bullshit.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.