“New Year’s Eve”
Starring: Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher, Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Biel, Zac Efron and too many other folks to list here
Rating: PG-13, for fleeting profanity and some sexual candor
“New Year’s Eve” is a lighthearted throwback to classic Hollywood ensemble dramas such as 1932’s “Grand Hotel,” with star-laden casts that played isolated clusters of characters involved with their own little dramas.
Additionally, “New Year’s Eve” is very much like last year’s “Valentine’s Day,” also directed by Garry Marshall and co-written by Katherine Fugate, who assumes solo scripting chores this time.
And, as was the case with “Valentine’s Day,” Marshall’s newest effort will be embraced as a fun date flick by folks with romantic souls, and loudly dissed by cinematic snobs who can’t get beyond the calculated pretense and contrived star turns.
A pox on the latter’s houses, and may they be alone on New Year’s Eve.
Sometimes a movie is just a movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Marshall knows how to craft slick Hollywood product, and Fugate deftly sketches a dozen or so mini-dramas, adding just enough backstory — in most cases — to involve us with each set of characters.
And we can’t help being impressed by a cast that includes three Oscar-winning best actors, a couple more Oscar nominees and several dozen familiar faces from both television and the big screen. A few are notorious scene-stealers, but Marshall maintains a steady hand and somehow grants everybody equal time.
As the title suggests, the events take place during a single day in and around New York’s Times Square, as a massive cluster of humanity jams the streets in order to watch the big ball drop at the stroke of midnight. This year’s annual ceremony is being supervised by Claire (Hilary Swank), the newly promoted vice president of the Times Square Alliance.
She arrives early, with plenty of time to test the ball. Which — horrors! — gets stuck halfway up the massive pole, with only a few of its many lights flashing.
Elsewhere, the meek and pathologically repressed Ingrid (Michelle Pfeiffer) — absolutely the last person who should be living in a big, bustling city — finally works up the courage to quit her job. Clutching a list of unfulfilled New Year’s resolutions from years past, she impulsively drafts Paul (Zac Efron) to help her cross off as many items as possible, before midnight.
But it’s a jaw-dropping list. Visit Bali? Save a life?
Rock superstar Jensen (Jon Bon Jovi), scheduled to perform when (if?) the ball drops in Times Square, also has a private gig earlier in the evening: a high-profile party catered by Laura (Katherine Heigl), the woman he let get away a year earlier. Jensen wants to try again; Laura wants to slap his face off … much to the horror of her vivacious sous-chef, Ava (Sofia Vergara), who’d happily serve herself to Jensen.
Across town, holiday killjoy Randy (Ashton Kutcher) hates all the confetti, streamers and funny glasses; he’s above such nonsense. He gets stuck in the apartment elevator with Elise (Lea Michele, of television’s “Glee”). He’s not bothered — nowhere to be — but Elise is frantic, because she does have an important engagement across town.
Fifteen-year-old Hailey (Abigail Breslin) wants to attend the ball-drop, but her overly protective single mother, Kim (Sara Jessica Parker), would rather they stay home and watch the whole thing on TV. The well-dressed Sam (Josh Duhamel), driving in from New York’s outskirts, also needs to get to Times Square; his reasons are revealed slowly and tantalizingly.
The dying Stan (Robert De Niro) waits in a hospital bed, his one final wish — to watch the ball-drop from the roof — denied by his doctor (Cary Elwes). Ah, but Aimee (Halle Berry), a sympathetic nurse, promises to remain by his side.
And since this is a story where new life waits to take the place of old, two young pregnant couples have checked into the same hospital, both expecting — hoping, because of the attendant publicity — to deliver the new year’s first baby. Tess and Griffin (Jessica Biel and Seth Meyers) learn of this tradition, and its fat financial prize, from Grace and James (Sarah Paulson and Til Schweiger). Competition ensues.
Have I forgotten anybody? Doesn’t matter; you get the general drift.
Some of these episodes play out reasonably well, with just enough narrative to sell the characters. The dueling pregnancies unfold quite amusingly; Biel also gets off the film’s funniest line — and the one responsible for the PG-13 rating — and her impeccable delivery of said line is explosive, unexpected and hilarious.
Alternatively, much as I adore the concept of Ingrid’s “bucket list” of resolutions, Pfeiffer never persuasively inhabits her character, or sells her relationship with Efron’s (mostly) solicitous Paul. Pfeiffer’s performance is stiffer than Ingrid herself; it feels too much like acting.
Berry, in great contrast, is amazing; she smoothly slips into Aimee’s skin and delivers the film’s most heartfelt performance.
Kutcher, having made a trademark of seemingly reluctant charmers, is right at home with the laid-back Randy. And yes, Michele’s Elise gets to sing: not just once, but thrice, most dramatically with a climactic solo that her television counterpart, Rachel Berry, would endorse.
As was the case with “Valentine’s Day,” some of these ostensibly separate stories converge, and a few of the apparently random characters wind up tied to others. Marshall and Fugate also recycle another essential element of their formula, by toying with our expectations and then gently moving in an unexpected direction.
The surprises aren’t quite as clever as those involving Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper, in “Valentine’s Day,” but they’re no less satisfying.
Yes, Marshall is shameless at times; yes, Fugate’s script can be blatantly manipulative. And yes, sometimes the spot-the-star game gets out of hand, particularly when the likes of Alyssa Milano, Penny Marshall and James Belushi simply wander through quick scenes.
But who cares? Fans of machine-gun dumb comedies will argue that even if nine jokes in 10 are duds, that last one’s enough of a zinger to make the film worthwhile. Well, the same is true of “New Year’s Eve”: Unless you’re perversely stubborn, at least a few of these little playlets will charm and entertain, and the rest certainly aren’t hard to endure.
Besides, I’d love to think that Claire’s speech — delivered with unexpected earnestness by Swank — could resonate, even a little, in these trying times.
That’s what the movies are all about: making us forget our troubles, even if only for two hours.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com