(by Dustin Putman
An ensemble romantic comedy that was sort of unctuous, plodding, and not very swoon-worthy at all, 2010's "Valentine's Day" might have missed the mark creatively, but it also starred nearly two dozen A-list stars and was set for release right around the namesake holiday—a can't miss proposition that led to box-office gold. Figuring they've got a formula that works, director Garry Marshall (2007's "Georgia Rule") and screenwriter Katherine Fugate (2004's "The Prince and Me") have again joined forces with "New Year's Eve," and it's every bit as pedestrian and hammy as the movie that preceded it. The grandiose cast is like a who's who of modern-day Hollywood, and just watching these actors is generally diverting. They're the not-quite saving grace of a film that wastes nearly all of them on trite, meandering, underwritten, vaguely interconnected storylines swirling within the Manhattan skyline. Watching it, one gets the feeling that the makers learned nothing from the mistakes they made the first time around, blissfully repeating themselves at each turn while inadvertently positioning the picture as the prosaic, personality-deficient cousin of 1999's "200 Cigarettes," an alarmingly similar comedy set on December 31 that has gotten better, funnier, and more memorably quote-worthy with each passing year. There isn't a thing in "New Year's Eve" worth quoting to begin with. Article continues below
Take a deep breath. This is about to get convoluted. In the city that never sleeps, New Year's Eve might be the most extravagant holiday of all. Newly appointed as the VP of the Times Square Alliance, Claire Morgan (Hilary Swank) is particularly stressed-out. In charge of seeing that the ball-dropping festivities go off without a hitch, she is horrified to learn of mechanical problems that may not be sorted out by midnight. Thank goodness she's got a friendly pal for support in sage-like black police officer Brendan (Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges). Also having seen calmer days is harried event planner Laura (Katherine Heigl), thrilled to be heading up her most prestigious gala assignment yet, but not so excited about facing ex-boyfriend Daniel Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi), an ultra-popular musician hired as the night's centerpiece performer. One of Jensen's back-up singers is Elise (Lea Michele), in danger of missing the show when she gets trapped in her apartment elevator with her neighbor, misanthropic comic book artist Randy (Ashton Kutcher). Randy is friends with Paul (Zac Efron), an Ahern Records employee who vows to fulfill all of the past resolutions of his older, newly unemployed co-worker Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) in exchange for free passes she has to a big New Year's party. After a near-death experience earlier in the day, the time has come to start living.
Over at Langone Medical Center, married couple Tess (Jessica Biel) and Griffin (Seth Meyers) learn of a $25,000 prize the hospital awards to the parents of the first baby born in the new year and become determined to win it. Meanwhile, Stan Harris (Robert De Niro) is a terminally ill patient trying to convince empathetic nurse Aimee (Halle Berry) to allow him to see the ball drop one last time from the roof of the building. She vows to keep him company since he's all alone, but may have plans of her own to tend to as the clock strikes twelve. The best man at friend Rory's (Joey McIntyre) country wedding, Sam (Josh Duhamel) promptly wrecks his car after leaving the chapel and is determined to return to the city by any means possible. He's due to meet up with a mysterious dream girl he shared last New Year's Eve with, and isn't about to let this opportunity pass him by. As for protective single mother Kim (Sarah Jessica Parker), she forbids 15-year-old daughter Hailey (Abigail Breslin) from going to Times Square alone to meet the boy she likes, Seth (Jake T. Austin), then must track her down when the petulant child sneaks out.
So many characters, so little substance! The cast list for "New Year's Eve" is filled to bursting, but the film is practically as empty as a barren desert with a tumbleweed blowing through. Not quite as adept as when Robert Altman masterfully pulled off the same structural tapestry with 1975's "Nashville" and 1993's "Short Cuts," director Garry Marshall and writer Katherine Fugate don't truly have anything to say and so they give the on-screen archetypes just as much to talk about it. Mostly, they come off as self-involved gnats. Hailey treats caring mom Kim horribly, then only makes up with her when she gets her way. Randy is grumpy and hates New Year's for reasons never understood; the viewer waits for an explanation of his rotten attitude, but it never comes. Before they obviously see the error of their ways in the third act, Tess and Griffin forget all about their unborn child and impending parenthood just so they might be able to get some money out of the delivery. As Paul whisks Ingrid around town making her dreams come true, he only has one thing on his mind: what he'll get from doing it. Even Jensen, who tours regularly as a musician and should know a thing or two about professionalism, threatens to walk out on his contractual obligation to perform because he's too busy moping around about girl problems. These people are no more than two dimensions each, and that's their problem; can you imagine how boring it must be for them when their whole lives revolve around such petty conflicts?
Far from digging into the colorful parts wonderfully performed by Martha Plimpton, Kate Hudson, Christina Ricci, Gaby Hoffman, Paul Rudd and Courtney Love in "200 Cigarettes," the actors here almost wholly seem to be trapped in mild variations on the same role. The various couplings don't work because once the circumstance putting them together is set up, they haven't a thing to talk about. Such is the case with Ashton Kutcher (2011's "No Strings Attached") and Lea Michele (TV's "Glee") as Randy and Elise, stuck in an elevator subplot swiped from the underrated 1994 Christmas satire "Mixed Nuts;" Abigail Breslin's (2009's "Zombieland") Hailey, who spends most of the movie literally roaming around crowds searching for the boy she wants to kiss (shot very tightly to not give away that it's not actually New Year's Eve in Times Square); and Katherine Heigl's (2010's "Killers") Laura, who knows it will never work out with Jon Bon Jovi's (2005's "Cry_Wolf") Jensen because she loves her career and is not willing to give it up to travel around the country with him on tour. This quarrel is never solved, but somehow these two still end up back in each other's arms by the end, logic be damned.
A few thespians do put a little something extra into their participation, which makes it all the more unfortunate that the script doesn't help them out. Michelle Pfeiffer (2007's "Hairspray") manages to add legitimate humor and poignance to her mousy, at-a-crossroads character Ingrid; if the makers had been the least bit clever, they would have named her Selena Kyle. The viewer does not learn much about Ingrid other than her longtime dedication to an unappreciative job, but Pfeiffer makes the most out of a woman who is ready to seize the day. Her interplay with Zac Efron (2010's "Charlie St. Cloud"), sliding effortlessly and charismatically into Paul, is as romantic as the film gets, and theirs is a relationship that (mostly) remains platonic. Also a notch above the rest, Halle Berry (2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire") exudes a warmth and realism to nurse Aimee, and Hilary Swank (2010's "Conviction") and Robert De Niro (2011's "Killer Elite") make an especially pat and mawkish climactic situation touching by way of their personal skills alone. Sofia Vergara (2011's "The Smurfs") also shows up as Laura's new sous chef Ava, the kind of side player whose only purpose is to spout off a succession of one-liners and double-entendres. Interestingly, it's a comparable no-name—Beth Kennedy (2009's "Race to Witch Mountain") as the ceaseless helicopter mom of one of Hailey's girlfriends—who has some of the funniest moments.
"New Year's Eve" runs in place for the duration and can't even get right the exciting, anticipatory feeling of midnight approaching. There is an embarrassing sequence where Claire makes an impassioned televised speech about what the dawn of a new year truly means, but it goes on so long that it gets bad laughs, then earns outright guffaws once director Marshall starts interspersing it with the approving nods of random viewers glued to her every schmaltzy word. The only marginal suspense in the picture comes out of which female character Sam is supposed to meet at the end, but that's not much to hinge a vast ensemble piece upon. In regards to the rest, there's a nice montage sing-along to "Have a Little Faith in Me" by Jon Bon Jovi and Lea Michele, and the end-credits outtakes are better and smarter than anything in the film proper. If ever there's a sign of cinematic trouble afoot, it's when raw footage is superior to what was deemed worthy of the finished product. "New Year's Eve" comes perilously close to feeling like a spoof of a romantic comedy instead of the genuine article.