I know. I know. We promised a Smackdown between our poll winner and Garry Marshall’s new “Valentine’s Day” offering, but after a very close race, the poll ended in a tie between “Love Actually” and “Amélie.” So…Defending Champions double-team the new kid on the Rom-Com block. Let’s get this party started and see if “Valentine’s Day” deserves a seat at the winner’s table with the big boys. Which means you’re getting what you’ve always really really wanted for “Valentine’s Day.” A three-way.
This poll result makes me very happy indeed because some complained that “Amelie” is not technically a romantic comedy and didn’t rightfully belong in the poll. Truthfully though, we did a lot of genre-bending-and-stretching in the poll; I would have predicted that modern day rom-com-transcending classics “The Graduate” and “Annie Hall” would have put up a stronger fight.
“Valentine’s Day” From everything I’ve seen and heard, I’m fairly certain that Garry Marshall is a very nice man, and I know he set out with the best of intentions making this film as did all his friends and associates who helped. No one ever intends to make a bad movie, and smacking this film feels a little like hitting a puppy. This movie sits there humping your leg, blissfully unaware and unashamed of the giant stinking turd it’s left on the cineplex screen. To extend the metaphor past all usefulness, this puppy hasn’t yet been spayed. It takes major cojones (or perhaps hubris) to engage such a weak, ungifted and unsuited company of players in hopes of recapturing the success of “Love Actually.” With a few major exceptions, the actors just plain aren’t good enough to rise above the lame material; most are unable to land any of the marginal jokes or even to remind us of any human beings we’ve met.
The Defending Champion
“Love Actually” features a cast of sublime, mostly British actors in overlapping love stories that unfold during the five weeks before Christmas. Cinema stalwarts Hugh Grant, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Laura Linney light up the screen and serve a mostly seamless script by Richard Curtis. Love actually is all around, contends the film, and it’s impossible to doubt the premise. Brotherly love, fatherly love, romantic love, thwarted love, marital love, illicit love – all kinds of love earn equal treatment in this rarely stupid, often funny, always touching film filled to the brim with brilliant actors and a terrific soundtrack.
Le Champion Défendant
“Amélie” tells the story of an introverted girl in Paris who makes a conscious decision to make her world a more loving place. She interferes in the lives of all around her, making matches, magic, and mischief, and finds true happiness and romance for herself in the bargain. Beautiful, stylish, and endlessly imaginative, the film reminds even the most jaded viewer how many small pleasures there are to be savored in life, how many small coincidences add up to momentous events. The opening credits alone evoke nearly every sense memory of early childhood; Amélie’s family history reinvents narrative, cunningly revealing random and crucial details in the most charming way imaginable. The locations are absolutely gorgeous, the many characters rich and diverse, the music, art direction and especially the special effects are lovely and moving. Every conceivable element conspires, like the film’s gamine heroine, to make us happy. “Amélie” inspires us to bring joy to others, family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers.
“Valentine’s Day” unapologetically uses the template provided by “Love Actually.” (That’s a kind and gentle way of saying ripped off.) Like its role model, “VD” employs a lot of actors; unfortunately for us, many of the featured players can’t act very well. Chosen for their marquee value rather than their acting chops, this strategy may work in the early weeks of a film’s release; loosed on the still- innocent public in a media blitz, this army of celebs will get asses into the seats all right for a strong opening weekend. But word of mouth will likely kill its long-term box office chances dead. Ineptly written and directed un-stylishly (that’s a kind way of saying ineptly), “VD” fails on just about every level. The comedy’s not funny, and the romance isn’t romantic. Critics will likely lambast it thoroughly, probably saying it reeks of television. But as a writer who proudly toiled long and hard making quality television, I contend it’s way worse than most television. The acting on television is mostly good, occasionally great, and seldom completely inadequate. The big screen is much less forgiving; a stale comedy bit falls really flat in a crowded (or cavernously empty) theater. While screenwriter Katherine Fugate went to the right well for inspiration, her “VD” screenplay comes nowhere close to Richard Curtis’ highly original and intelligent effort.
Ashton Kutcher provides the film’s sweet gooey center; if puppydog eagerness and positive energy were all it took to carry a film, this would be an entirely different review. George Lopez glowed with life force and believability. Rom-com naturals Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts, and Jennifer Garner belong on the big screen, but the rest fell flat in under-realized roles. Roberts appears all too briefly, and that smile she flashes reminds us what the genre holds in store when it works. Bradley Cooper, Topher Grace, Eric Dane, and Jamie Foxx leave no ripples in the pond; even Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo as the long-marrieds don’t make the impact one might expect. I confess I was grateful to finally see the two Jessicas, Alba and Biel, in the same film so I could tell them apart. As it happens, they’re both gorgeous, but let’s just say they’re not about to give Meryl Streep a run for her money. Biel’s comedy bits fail to coalesce for many reasons, some well beyond her control. Like many of the film’s other “bad guys”, Alba fails to engage our sympathies. Emma Roberts plays a mystifyingly incompentent nanny and supposedly gifted high school senior headed for Yale in the fall. She tells everyone within earshot of her plans to have sex with her boyfriend, another pinhead mistakenly admitted to a decent college, Stanford. Even in Los Angeles, eighteen-year-olds keep a little something something to themselves.
The two Taylors – Lautner and Swift – are stuck with references that pass for jokes. A month from now, no one will remember why it was supposed to be funny that she’s “not a cheerleader” and he’s too shy to remove his shirt. The kid actor (whose name I don’t want to mention to protect the innocent) was just plain dreadful.
“VD” copied from the “LA” template a lot of elements that ultimately don’t matter much. An airport chase, a motherless child in love, sex workers, long-marrieds dealing with unfaithfulness, overlapping stories and relationships. The elements that would have saved the enterprise were entirely missing. Beautiful cinematography and lighting for instance. Gifted actors. Intelligent, insightful, and original material.
Set in relentlessly sunny Los Angeles, the cinematography of “Valentine’s Day” looks bafflingly muddy and dark; while shot with what I can only assume was sincere affection, the onscreen city lacks all magic and beauty. Only the flower mart scenes exploded with the kind of color one has every right to expect, and even those shots were workmanlike and uninspired.
The Defending Champions’ London and Paris beckon the viewer to visit; the production design of “Amélie” reduces the color palette to a crayon-bright range that’s consistent and thrilling. London, bathed in twinkling Christmas lights of every description, has never looked lovelier or more inviting. Both films boast a real sense of place, their cities dizzying and real and invested with cinematic trickery and design that boosts the sense of romance and fantasy. The entire cast of “Love Actually” is strong; renowned actors are interestingly matched with unknowns and elevate their convincing partners. Only Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are equally weighted acting partners, but director Curtis leaves none of his cast members high and dry. As American dreamgirls, relative acting flyweights January Jones, Denise Richards, Shannon Elizabeth, Elisha Cuthbert, and Ivana Milicevic handle their small bimbette roles just fine. In Garry Marshall’s world, they’d have been given leading roles and allowed to founder.
For those who’ve seen “Love Actually” before but not lately, you may find that one of the stories in particular plays more powerfully now than it did in 2003. Liam Neeson plays a recently widowed step- ad, and it’s hard to watch his grief-stricken face without thinking of his recent real life loss. His face is handsome and rugged and made for suffering, and his performance is particularly heartbreaking and layered. Even the dopier moments (the airport chase for instance) work because he’s just that good and that grounded.
All the actors resonate even when they’re not onscreen; the director/writer treats them all with thought and care and intelligence. The funny parts are mostly funny, and the touching parts manage to avoid treacle-y over-sentimentality for the most part.
The messages of “Love Actually” are intriguingly complex for a romantic comedy. All actions have consequence, and adults truly do behave like adults. Decisions are complicated, and choices aren’t trumped up. One of the sweetest segments of the film feature starkly naked Martin Freeman and Joanna Page meeting cute and making perfectly clear the distinction between love and attraction and just plain coupling. The film’s none-too-subtle political message must have landed hard and with a great welcome in the UK; after years of Tony Blair’s unpopular capitulations to W. and his minions, Hugh Grant (as freshly minted Prime Minister) takes a strong and surprising stand against Total Creeper/American President Billy Bob Thornton. That scene, the slow build to that scene, and Grant’s dance solo make for memorable moments.
“Amélie” also has a lot on its quirky beautiful mind. Personal politics and human kindness take center stage. Amélie acts locally, not globally. She is the embodiment of making a difference, and her mentors remind her to take a chance, to bravely risk failure and embarrassment. The beauty of the film itself hasn’t faded in a decade, and neither has the cleverness of Amélie’s manipulations and schemes; the visually stunning wit and pure joy of fillmmaking and storytelling remains fresh and worth a second (or third, or tenth) look. The exhilarating moments of Amélie and Nino astride his scooter harken back to “Roman Holiday” and a long tradition of falling in love on film.
You could spend twenty dollars on two tickets and see the truly hot mess that is “Valentine’s Day” or you could rent the DVD’s of “Love Actually” and”Amélie” for a fraction of that. Plus no one will kick the back of your chair or talk and you can eat whatever you like. You can even wear your jammies. Or nothing at all. Heck, for the price of two tickets to “Valentine’s Day,” you could subscribe to Netflix for a month and see a whole bunch of terrific movies. So here’s the decision. If you’re in the mood for romantic comedy, skip “Valentine’s Day” and stick with the winners.
(For you Smackdown purists, it should be obvious that “Amélie” is my personal pick for Ultimate Rom-Com champion. After all, that’s the film that topped my ten favorite films of the decade. I feel quite vindicated that so many others agree with my assessment/obsession.)