If pushed, I would struggle to offer a really great American ensemble movie in the grand tradition where convergent narratives compliment each other to create a wider impressive plot. Magnolia and Crash will no doubt be suggested- the former I might be inclined to agree with (though wholly "great" it is not), but the latter I found so drab and imposing that I lost interest in it far from the ending.
In place of the narrative strands' importance, and the way in which they converge, ensembles tend instead to glorify the ensemble themselves, assuming that the audience will take most pleasure from seeing a large number of famous faces acting alongside one another.
Take, for example The Ocean's Trilogywhich was such a bloated excercise that somewhere during the second movie they gave up on the idea of being a real ensemble project, and relegated certain characters to bit-parts and scenery. Instead of using the larger than usual cast to flesh out the complexity of the narrative, which was admittedly better achieved in the first part, the film just revelled in the fact that the gang was all still there. And what validates the argument more than anything? The sequential increase in cast numbers along with the titles- as a new character was added, original team members became less in-focus, until the films were largely devoted to George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and the new addition.
Sadly for some (though not me), the greatest recent example of an ensemble movie that does do not do this is, and still values the idea of convergent narrative strands is still Love Actually. It might be heavily cliched in certain parts, and even more heavily sugared in others, but Richard Curtis' rom-com epic never creates an imbalance between talent and substance and technique. So Hugh Grant (probably the biggest star on show) isnt given more screen time at the cost of other lesser stars' sections, and the effect is a narrative convergence that adds to the overall heart-warming feel of the movie's resolution.
No surprise then that Hollywood has eventually decided to effectively remake Love Actually (though admittedly with no statement of intent or obviousness) for the most lucrative market available to the prospective rom-com makers- Valentine's Day movie-daters.
And for those who doubt this is a direct homage to Love Actually? How else can you explain the appearance of an almost identical plot strand with the young Edison (Bryce Robinson) who is in love with a girl at school: inconsequential that it turns out to be the teacher, the sentiment remains identical, as does the consequential interaction between the badly equipped grandparents (in place of Liam Neesson's bereaved step-father).
My first major problem with Valentine's Day is it is so bloody cynical in its attempts to make women go all gushy and purr "awww" at every sickeningly sweet romantic motif. Dont get me wrong, Im a major rom-com, and romantic film fan, counting When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle in my Top Ten, but sometimes its just so obvious. The one part in particular that got to me was during a busy scene in Ashton Kutcher's flower shop where for no discernible artistic reason I can fathom, the scene cuts to two toddlers kissing. Queue near-frantic cutesy reactions from the female part (I wont say half as there were a LOT of single women in there) of the audience- I could practically smell their ovaries twitching.
The more I watched, the more these examples popped up, making me shake my head increasingly, and yet having no less of an effect on the slushy females, including my own girlfriend. When I later challenged her, asking whether she realised she was being manipulated her response was emphatic justification- "but it was so cute!".
A note to Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner, in future, on embarking on your movie careers, make better choices. While Lautner has made a good financial choice in the Twilight franchise, his appearance in Valentine's Day as a brainless jock is too shit to be a funny parody. Likewise Swift as a ditzy dance-squad girl is grimmacingly bad, especially when she actually does dance.
The worst of it is that it isnt that unbelievable that Swift is a total airhead or that Lautner is a vacuous pretty-boy jock, so to consciously "parody" the fact with these two caricatures is a little inaccessible for movie fans, like myself, who have no frame of reference to believe that the ultimate converse might be true. A dangerous game that, for me at least, has backfired on the two Taylors.
Elsewhere the casting swings from terrific to terrible- Anne Hathaway as a sex-line moonlighter is affecting for various reasons, Bradley Cooper plays his role perfectly (especially in terms of the revelation about him) and McSteamy himself Eric Dane as a pseudo-David Beckham type American Footballer coming to the end of his career is also a subtle highlight.
In the terrible stakes, and largely down to miscasting, Julia Roberts isnt believable at all (until the brief moment when she is reunited with the man in her life), and McDreamy Patrick Dempsey cannot be believed as a philandering man-pig. It just isnt possible when you take into account (and we must) every other film he has made up to date. He is supposed to be the romantic lead, the dreamy (slightly dorky) Prince Charming who it inevitably transpires is the right choice for the fawning heroine.
Aside from bad casting choices, the movie also suffers for some of the actors' performances- even those who seemed ideal for their roles: Jamie Foxx seems ideally matched to his unwilling Sports caster who is forced to cover Valentine's Day for his network, but plays it way over the top for the majority. Likewise Shirley MacLaine- she overacts and underacts but never seems to just act, and whoever did her plastic surgery should be sued, considering she now looks worse than any woman her age and has been robbed of the majority of her capacity to show facial expression.
I still find it extremely difficult to believe Ashton Kutcher as a grown-up lead- my mind simply defaults to Dude, Where's My Car era Kutcher and I expect him to mug his way through even the most serious of roles. What doesn't help is his sometimes crippling lack of range- for instance when he is dumped having proposed he doesn't take it as badly as he should, considering he is supposed to be the greatest believer in romance and love in the picture.
While I admired a lot of the different plot strands, and the choice to include some less joyful segments- those involving Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo, Ashton Kutcher and Jessica Alba, and Patrick Dempsey and Jennifer Garner- I wasn't enamoured with some of the more specific plot details. Of particular annoyance is the section devoted to the revelation that Garner's Julia and Kutcher's Reed are more than just best friends- there is no hint of that level of affection between the two at all prior to that stage. The key hook for a friends turned lovers motif is that there is already a seed planted for the audience to recognise the potential for development into something more, but Valentine's Day would have us believe that it occurs miraculously. Love might involve a serious suspension of logic, but I cant stretch to that.
Despite the problems, Valentine's Day is a valiant effort to recapture the success of Love Actually, though it is way too obvious, and I cant forgive the manipulation levels involved. Whatever happened to the artistry of the subtle?