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New Year's Eve

(2011) * 1/2 Pg-13
118 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Garry Marshall. Cast: Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hilary Swank, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Josh Duhamel, Katherine Heigl, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, Jon Bon Jovi, Jessica Biel, Abigail Breslin, Til Schweiger, Chris 'Ludacris', Hector Elizondo, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sofia Vergara, Matthew Broderick.

/content/films/4260/1.jpgBack in the 1970s, Irwin Allen produced disaster movies packed with random stars, meaning you could see an adventure flick with Paul Newman, Fred Astaire and O.J. Simpson. This economic model is back with a vengeance, and though Garry Marshall's New Year's Eve (like Valentine's Day before it) is a romantic comedy, somehow the word "disaster" still comes to mind.

Is it me or is Hollywood making movies on dares now? How else to explain all-star weirdness like Al Pacino being wooed by Adam Sandler in drag in Jack and Jill, or New Year's Eve's nutty, chaste anti-romance between a shuckin' and jivin' Zac Efron and dowdy cougar Michelle Pfeiffer? Has the world gone crazy? Perhaps director Marshall is crazy like a fox. On the evidence of Valentine's Day, New Year's Eve is likely to pack ‘em in.

I mean who wouldn't want to see Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele (Glee) stuck in an elevator, SNL's Seth Meyers tangle with German superstar Til Schweiger, and the apocalyptic signifier of a movie whose mix-n-match cast includes Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jon Bon Jovi, Halle Berry, Ryan Seacrest, Sofía Vergara, and at least one New Kid on the Block (and that's just for starters)? What are you, un-American?

The plots of  New Year's Eve concern the occasion's hive-like activity in Manhattan during the hours before midnight. As De Niro lays dying (and tended to by Berry), Abigail Breslin frets over an anticipated first kiss, Efron ticks items off Pfeiffer's bucket list to score masquerade ball tickets, Duhamel strives to make it in time to a romantic rendezvous a la An Affair to Remember, Heigl makes ex Bon Jovi work to get back in her good graces, parents compete to have the first New Year's baby, and Swank nervously supervises the repair of the Times Square Ball. I tell ya, I haven't heard this much talk about ball-dropping since the junior high locker room. (Thank you, I'm here all week. Try the veal.)

The crass sentimental manipulation of this bright, colorful, glossy "Hallmark Hall of Shame" is all part of the bargain, the audience fully expecting to laugh, cry, and kiss twelve bucks goodbye. Big-cheese actors turn into Velveeta while obliged to recite platitudes about the "beauty" and "magic" and "hope" of New Year's Eve. "Let's remember to be nice to each other," says Swank. "And not just tonight, but all year long." Well, who would argue with that?

Returning from Valentine's Day are screenwriter Katherine Fugate and, in new roles, Kutcher, Jessica Biel, and amusing cameo players Larry Miller and Hector Elizondo (Marshall's good-luck charm). Fugate follows her own rigid formula of "unexpected" connections linking characters across storylines. In terms of sophistication, it's the movie equivalent of eight romance novels. Efron's character describes the hot-ticket party as "like Facebook, but real." Switch "made up" for "real," and you've summed up the pretty but dumb New Year's Eve.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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