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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: New Year’s Eve (One and a Half Stars)

New Year’s Eve (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Garry Marshall, 2011
New Year’s Eve may be the punishment audiences get for making director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate’s Valentine‘s Day such a big movie hit last year. That schmaltzy, heart-up-your-sleeve, all-star show, you’ll remember, strung together a lot of clichéd romantic comedy vignettes or plot lines, each with big name mini-casts, against the backdrop of Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day.
Like many critics, I watched the movie, said a few nasty things, and forgot about it. Little did I know, little did we all know, that the damned thing would gross 200 million dollars and give birth to New Year‘s Eve — the latest romcom-arama from Marshall and Fugate, in which eight big star love stories are plastered against the backdrop of New Year’s Eve in New York, New York.
So what happens on this frantic nonstop super-holiday? Oh, lots of stuff…
Hilary Swank, who’s newly in charge of the Time Square New Year’s Eve Ball drop, faces crisis after crisis as the ball get jammed during a dry run (complete with Ryan Seacrest), forcing her to try and fix things with the help of a friendly cop (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and supposedly the only technician in New York who can handle this one: Hector Elizondo, whom she once fired.
 Zac Efron, a bike delivery boy with lots of chutzpah, hooks up with Michelle Pfeiffer, a mousey dreamer who just quit her corporate job as a music company president’s assistant, and she offers him prime party tickets if he’ll  fulfill her top ten wish list in one day. The list includes such whoppers as a Balinese feast and the simple admonition “Amaze Me,” but Zac accomplishes it with astounding speed — unfazed even by the logistics of putting together an on-stage Radio City Music Hall review with Michelle, in what seems like a half an hour or so.
 Meanwhile, Zac’s buddy, the smirking artist rebel Ashton Kutcher, gets caught in a freight elevator with Lea Michelle, a backup singer for Jon Bon Jovi, here cast, in a slight stretch, as a legendary rock singer. (He’s hell on wheels on “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”) Jon Bon, who’s providing entertainment that night (along with Lea), spends much of the day trying to win back the heart of fetching food boss Katherine Heigl, whom he fled last New Years, when he got cold “relationship” feet. Chic mom Sarah Jessica Parker tries to rescue daughter Abigail Breslin from any possible Sex in the City with glib teen Lothario Jake T. Austin, who smirks almost as much as Ashton Kutcher (never a good sign).  And Josh Duhamel, who got encouraging signals from some unknown woman last New Years’ Eve, wrecks his car on a day when all the mechanics are on holiday, and races to the city with some loveable provincials in a van, to try to find his mysterious dreamgal again.
Exhausted, yet? Well, two couples — Jessica Biel/Seth Meyers, and Sarah Paulson/Til Schweiger, are engaged in a race to have the first baby born in the New Year, thereby winning a $25,000 contest. And on another floor of the same hospital, Robert De Niro lies dying of mortification for having agreed to appear in this movie. 
No, I’m kidding. Robert De Niro plays a man dying of cancer (not mortification), tended by nurse Halle Berry, and De Niro’s last wish is to watch the ball drop on New Year’s Eve, from the roof of that very hospital. Naturally, it’s against hospital regulations. (So why doesn’t he just call Zac Efron?)
 Each of the eight stories is about as phony and schmaltzy and star-obsessed as the usual big, glossy, big-studio, big-star romantic comedy these days, except there are eight phony schmaltzy stories instead of just one. Also, the movie doesn’t look as good. But Marshall and Fugate, as in Valentine’s Day, can swing back and forth between story-lines, hence keeping boredom at bay — at least theoretically.
 By the end, everything in New Year’s Eve will be resolved and tied up in ways that should satisfy anyone who loves phony, schmaltzy movie stories, and several of the stories will have infiltrated each other for some semi-surprise climaxes. You’ll never guess who Josh Duhamel‘s surprise mystery women is. (A hint: It’s not Katherine Heigl.) Or which current or former New York Mayor shows up to help drop the ball. (A hint: It’s not Ed Koch.) Or how long Ashton Kutcher can keep smirking in that elevator, before Lea Michelle breaks into “Auld Lang Syne.“


I will reveal however that Robert De Niro does get wheeled out to the roof to watch the ball drop, in a highly improbable but amply telegraphed plot twist — but I won’t tell who wheels him up there. (A hint: It’s not Al Pacino.)


Garry Marshall, a king of the sitcom, godfathered TV’s “Happy Days” and “The Odd Couple” and “Laverne and Shirley” (sister Penny does a cameo as herself here), before becoming a big-movie rom-com specialist with the likes of Pretty Woman and Frankie and Johnny. (My favorite Marshall movie is still his 1984 The Flamingo Kid.) There’s something likable about his movies even when they’re baloney factories like this one, and he‘s not ageist, like a lot of contemporary rom-commers. But I shudder to think what new holiday or national institution he and writer Fugate plan to waylay and ransack next. Christmas? Labor Day? Halloween? (What about an ensemble slasher movie with eight different maniacs prowling the streets of Burbank?) Since she‘s done The Prince and Me and he’s done The Princess Diaries (and Pretty Woman) , maybe they could join forces for a movie about an out-of-work Prince and Princess opening up a Hollywood Bordello on Guy Fawkes Day.

The late Robert Altman used to make wonderful all-star ensemble movies like Nashville and Short Cuts and Gosford Park — movies that did exactly what New Year’s Eve and Valentine‘s Day try to but don’t. Though Altman’s pictures didn’t gross 200 million dollars, they told surprising, funny, intelligent stories with fascinating characters, and wove them together with gusto, artistry and ingenuity. These new holiday movies may be pulling in a lot of people (on screen and in the theatres), but they show us who they think we want to see, and tell us what they think we want to hear, in ways that we’ve seen before. If you took one of Altman’s ensemble shows, even one of the weaker ones, like Health, and ran it backwards and upside down, it might be more entertaining than this. More surprising and more poignant too.

As it is, New Year’s Eve is another example of America’s rampaging star system obsession, or the tabloid syndrome. All of these people — and even a lot of actors in the smaller parts, like Cherry Jones as Josh’s mom and Jim Belushi as Ashton’s super — are stars on some level and that includes Ryan Seacrest. We’re supposed to welcome them like old friends, and be delighted to see them, even if they’re doing things that frequently make no sense. But then, how can sense contend with celebrity? How can old acquaintance be forgot? And never brought to mind? How many more holidays can these people milk?

Ah well, let’s raise a glass and sing “Auld Lang Syne” for Bob Altman, the master of ensemble movies, the president of overlapping dialogue, the wizard of M*A*S*H, the pasha of Nashville, the Duke of Gosford Park. Here’s to you, Bob. Let me tell you: He wouldn’t have let us get stuck in an elevator with Ashton Kutcher.

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