Just because 2011 was a great movie year doesn’t mean it didn’t have its fair share of dreck. A favorite (so to speak) of mine was Jim Sheridan’s Dream House, a film so stupid and needlessly convoluted it played like an atrocious M. Night Shyamalan parody. There were countless attempts to cash in on tired franchises with half-assed efforts (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strangers Tides), some jingoistic propaganda trash (Battle: Los Angeles), and a distressingly high number of casually sexist wrecks (the appalling Adam Sandler vehicle Just Go With It being perhaps the worst of the bunch). Unsurprisingly, the one film that somehow managed to be all three at once was the lovechild of the man who’s become the poster boy for shitty summer blockbusters; somewhat more surprisingly, Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon was more or less well received by some critics, seemingly for managing not to be as dreadful as the previous entry in this exercise in awfulness that is the Transformers franchise. Given the level of the competition, it would therefore be bold to deem New Year’s Eve the worst film of the year, though a case could definitely be made for it. What it undoubtedly is, though, is the hokiest film of the year.
New Year’s Eve follows the same formula as director Garry Marshall’s previous intelligence-insulting offering, last year’s Valentine’s Day. (Insert your own jokes about the name of his next movie.) It revolves around a bunch of famous and somewhat less famous actors playing characters with next to no personality doing stuff we don’t care one bit about. Even their names hardly matter. New Year’s Eve is built around one very simple concept: recognition. Its characters aren’t characters so much as vessels for faces we all recognize from countless previous movies, and to whom we supposedly already have some sort of emotional attachment. Katherine Heigl plays the same character she’s played in every single romantic comedy she’s ever been in (which seems to be every single romantic comedy made in the past five years), a character New Year’s Eve encourages us to identify not as Laura but as Katherine Heigl herself. Jon Bon Jovi plays Jon Bon Jovi (or Jensen, a name only somewhat less ridiculous), and Sofia Vergara basically plays her character from Modern Family.
Marshall and screenwriter Katherine Fugate (who also wrote Valentine’s Day) play on the intense overexposure of actors and other public figures to create what’s less a film than a sort of fantasy/fan fiction hybrid, in which even the smallest role has to be a cameo. (Alyssa Milano as a random nurse with perhaps twenty seconds of screen time has got to be the most egregious example, but you also have rapper Common playing a soldier we only briefly see and, according to imdb, New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire as a “Party Dancer”.) I wish it were some kind of ballsy postmodern commentary, but sadly it’s nothing but lazy and exploitative writing.
(It can also have some unexpected consequences: recognizing Til Schweiger as Inglourious Basterds’ Hugo Stiglitz, I kept wishing he’d snap and start stabbing people left and right. No such luck.)
It’s all fake, of course. The Katherine Heigl on the screen is not the “real” Katherine Heigl, but a fictional construct we are nonetheless, as I have already mentioned, encouraged to see as the “real” Katherine Heigl. It’s par for the course, as everything in New Year’s Eve is similarly fake. According to the film, New Year’s Eve is all about two things, namely, watching the Times Square ball drop (er, okay) and finding love (I’m sorry, what?). Whatever happened to getting drunk and making resolutions you know you’ll never act on, I have no idea. That Valentine’s Day should be all about love, or rather about Hollywood’s idea of love (which is a very different thing to which I’ll come back in a bit), made sense; New Year’s Eve being about the same thing is somewhat of a stretch, to put it generously. Fugate and Marshall must have sensed it, for they have their characters deliver speech after speech trying to justify it, with Hilary Swank’s (or Claire, if you insist on calling her by her character’s name) being by far the most obvious and contrived of the lot. New Year’s Eve, we’re told, is a time for fresh starts and second chances, so we should try to love one another more, okay? This in order to justify spending close to two hours following a bunch of inane stories, not a single one of which has the least ounce of interest or originality, every one of which is designed to elicit the most superficial emotional response.
Early on in the film, Hilary Swank, who’s supervising the dropping of the ball on Times Square and all the accompanying events, is displeased with the way some of her unnamed worker bees are dropping confetti from the top of one of the Times Square buildings onto the crowd below. “Don’t just throw them,” she says. “They should float on the wind! It should be magical!” So the subordinates do as they are told, and Swank is apparently pleased. That scene nicely sums up Marshall’s, and most of Hollywood’s, approach to not only storytelling, but also to feelings, and particularly love. It’s all hokey sentimentality and empty symbolic gestures, stupid confetti floating on the wind that only look magical if you’ve been force-fed that kind of bullshit forever. (The phrase “empty symbolic gestures” might sound like an oxymoron, but I think it describes quite well the way New Year’s Eve, like every other awful romantic comedy, is built entirely on events that are presented as pregnant with meaning but are ultimately entirely empty. New Year’s Eve takes it to the next level, as it’s arguably nothing but such moments.)
It wouldn’t be so bad if that hokey sentimentality didn’t actually hide (barely) the deepest cynicism. New Year’s Eve is nothing but a two-hour commercial for a whole bunch of companies that helped finance this piece of trash only so that their name would appear on the screen every now and again. Product placement, sadly, is something that touches every single Hollywood movie, good or bad (Source Code, a film I like a great deal, was almost ruined by constant product placement), but New Year’s Eve is particularly obvious about it. One of the film’s first shot is a five- or six-second take of one of the giant Times Square screens, whose only purpose is to show the giant Toshiba signs that surround said screen. Worst of all is the blooper reel that plays over the movie’s end credits, though. It’s made up of some genuine bad takes and some obviously set-up gags, including one in which one of the film’s actors holds up a couple copies of the Valentine’s Day DVD in front of the camera, brazenly peddling Marshall’s previous commercial maskerading as a movie. That anyone could have thought that was an okay thing to do is mind-boggling. It is perhaps the most insulting thing I’ve seen in a movie this year (and I’ve seen Just Go With It).
That cynicism extends to the way Fugate and Marshall will exploit anything and everything to pull at their audience’s heartstrings. One of the characters is revealed to have a soldier stationed in Iraq for a boyfriend, and one of the film’s last scenes is them talking over the computer. Not only is that scene shamelessly playing on the knee-jerk sympathetic reaction the audience is supposed to have upon seeing a soldier serving abroad, but it’s also engaging in an insidious process of negation of the reality of war. War here becomes little more than a personal tragedy that prevents two lovers from being together on New Year’s Eve; all its moral and political implications are neatly swept under the rug, if not outright denied in the first place. (Just so we’re clear, I’m not asking a film like New Year’s Eve to take a moral stance on war in general and the Iraq War in particular, but I’d be grateful if it didn’t put it on equal footing with the traffic jam that might prevent Josh Duhamel from reuniting with the mysterious woman he met the previous year.)
That combination of empty sentimentality and unabashed cynicism would be somewhat easier to take if it weren’t so widespread in Hollywood. So, sadly, is New Year’s Eve’s portrayal of racial minorities: the movie features four non-white characters, all of whom are broad racial stereotypes stuck with minor supporting roles with no storyline of their own. There’s nothing unique about New Year’s Eve, except perhaps the incredible shamelessness of it all, and that’s what makes it all the more infuriating. If someone were to devise a case study in everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, it would look like this film. Is it the worst movie of the year? Perhaps not. But damn if it doesn’t try its best to be.