There are times during Garry Marshall's incomprehensibly awful "New Year's Eve" in which you may find yourselves wondering, is this the worst film ever made? It's not, of course. But it is the worst film I've seen in 2011. (Admittedly, I've not seen "Jack and Jill.")
It's bizarro-world cinema, really, a rancid stew of actors saddled with characters who are not believable on virtually any level, in a Dec. 31 New York City that exists only in the mind of hack screenwriters. I can suspend disbelief as a viewer. I found "Love Actually" genuinely lovable, OK? But Marshall has never met a script he couldn't sitcom-ize.
A sequel of sorts to 2010's inexplicably successful "Valentine's Day," the formula is simple: random actors in random story lines centered around a holiday come together, learn about love, heal wounds and teach us what the holiday is all about.
The group includes Ashton Kutcher as a heartbroken anti-holiday comic book illustrator, "Glee" star Lea Michelle as a young singer, Katherine Heigl as a caterer-to-the-stars, Jon Bon Jovi as the rock star known as Jensen who broke her heart, Sarah Jessica Parker as a wet-blanket mom, Josh Duhamel as a Ken doll, and Jessica Biel and Seth Myers as a couple hoping for the first New Year's baby.
Take a breath. There's also Hilary Swank as the producer of the Times Square ball drop, Robert De Niro as a dying man hoping to live through the night, Halle Berry as his devoted nurse, and, in 2011's worst story line, Zac Efron as a bike messenger helping Michelle Pfeiffer's mousy introvert complete her list of old resolutions. Uh-huh.
It's always nice to see Pfeiffer on screen, but I felt embarrassed for her here, in a role far, far beneath her. It is pleasant to see Cary Elwes, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, "Saturday Night Live" star Myers, and the always-welcome Hector Elizondo, a Marshall regular.
It's not so pleasant to see Heigl, Parker and Swank. And it's a problem when your big celebrity cameo is Ryan Seacrest, especially when he's dressed in a coat that appears ripped out of Klaus Nomi's closet.
There's also a problem when the audience literally can't recall the name of a single character. Well, OK, there's Jensen. But on top of this nameless stew, there is not even a passing attempt at real characterization. How did Heigl's caterer and Bon Jovi's rock star meet? Don't ask Marshall.
What keeps the film from an even worse fate is the occasional moment of likability. Myers and Biel's nervous parents-to-be are almost believable, and very cute. And believe it or not, Efron and "Modern Family" star Sofia Vergara at least bring to the table an over-the-top joy that points to a direction the film could have taken. Why not just go total cartoon, after all?
De Niro continues eating away at his legacy like Joey Chestnut at an Indian buffet, Kutcher is Kutcher, we're supposed to buy Jensen as the world's biggest rock star, despite being played by a clearly aged Bon Jovi, and, and, and --
The result is a film with less emotional substance than a Kay Jewelers commercial and by the time Marshall brings in a soldier stationed overseas and a nursery stocked with adorable newborns, I felt more manipulated than I've been since, well, the last time I watched a Marshall film.
What's truly scary is the thought that if this film is successful, Marshall has a limitless supply of holidays to tarnish -- Memorial Day, Labor Day, Administrative Assistants Day. End 2011 properly. Avoid "New Year's Eve" like the distant relative you despise, and make a resolution to leave it off your Netflix queue in 2012, too.
NEW YEAR'S EVE
1 star (out of 4)
STARRING: Zac Efron, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Halle Berry, Ashton Kutcher, Robert De Niro
DIRECTOR: Garry Marshall
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for language including sexual references.
THE LOWDOWN: The lives of several single and married New Yorkers intersect on New Year's Eve.