One of my favourite holiday films to this day remains Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003), in which an extended cast of characters prepares for Christmas Day in loosely related tales of hope and love. I imagine director Gary Marshall and screenwriter Katherine Fugate feel the same way about the British romantic anthology because they keep trying to remake it year after year. In 2010, for example, they gave us Valentine’s Day, about an extended cast of characters preparing for Valentine’s Day in loosely related tales of hope and love, and a year later New Year’s Eve, in which an extended cast of characters prepares for New Year’s Eve in loosely related tales of hope and love.
At first glance, the formula seems simple enough. Step one: rather than stretch a recycled sitcom plot into a doubly redundant feature film, distill a dozen such plots to their essential beats, like the meet cute, the easily solvable misunderstanding, the climactic kiss, etc. Step two: intertwine the mini rom-coms by way of incidental friendships and coincidences to add a sense of wonder and serendipity. Step three: provide an abstract but saccharine theme to unite the threads, such as the feeling of hope inherent to celebrating the New Year. Step four: hire charismatic stars who can fill the gaps in your overcrowded screenplay with their presence alone.
Now here’s the tricky part: you have to pace each of the stories differently to make sure they keep the viewer interested throughout. For example, in Love Actually, Curtis intercuts the scenes quietly introducing the widower and the Prime Minister with a show-stopping musical number at a wedding. Unfortunately, Marshall hasn’t caught on to this crucial element of structure, and so the opening act of New Year’s Eve repeats the same beat over and over again, acquainting us with a seemingly endless parade of lonely souls, including a divorced mother (Sarah Jessica Parker) fighting with her teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin), a jaded artist (Ashton Kutcher) who hates celebrating the New Year, and a workaholic responsible for ensuring the Time Square Ball drops at midnight (Hilary Swank).
The shorts are, by their very nature, hit or miss with only one thread outright offending me. Katherine Heigl, known in my circles as the rom-com kiss of death, stars as a control freak, of course, refusing to give her rock star ex (Jon Bon Jovi) a second chance. One can hardly blame the chef for refusing Jensen’s advances, seeing as he skedaddled after proposing to her, but the constant temper tantrums and physical assaults on the man turn what’s meant to come off as quirky pettiness into psychopathic hostility. To make matters worse, New Year’s Eve spices up the subplot with ethnic stereotypes like the saucy Latin horndog (Sofía Vergara), propagating the notion that minorities exist merely for white people’s amusement.
Otherwise, the tales largely oscillate between the clichéd and the forgettable, though I do appreciate the way Marshall uses parallel editing to play with our expectations, setting up one fateful encounter only for the characters to swerve in a more meaningful direction at the last minute. Granted, the identity of the socialite’s (Josh Duhamel) mystery lover doesn’t have much significance when you think about it, and the twist in Nurse Aimee’s (Halle Berry) storyline proves more thoughtful than deep, but I particularly like the conclusion to the thread featuring Robert De Niro as a dying man pleading to watch the Time Square Ball drop one last time.
My favourite subplot, though, stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Zac Efron as a reclusive secretary and the macho bike messenger she hires to fulfill a series of New Year’s resolutions that strike me as more of a bucket list. Each requires tremendous creativity on the part of Paul, the bike messenger, who uses wordplay and his intimate knowledge of the city to check off items like “Ride a New York cab without traffic” and “Save a life”. As such, we get an offbeat payoff every time New Year’s Eve comes back to their storyline, making their burgeoning relationship all the more magical. It also helps that Pfeiffer and Efron have genuine chemistry despite their age difference. I often joke about casting the latter in every production I can think of, but I truly dig his performance here.
In fact, from Héctor Elizondo as a disgruntled electrical engineer to Jessica Biel as a pregnant woman competing to give birth at midnight, every cast member brings as much joy and energy as one could expect from the limited material. Unfortunately, Marshall and his screenwriter never take the time to build a credible universe for them to inhabit. Take, for example, the bit in which Ryan Seacrest announces he’ll be “on the radio” all night instead of highlighting a specific station. Fugate, you see, isn’t giving voice to a DJ real New Yorkers might listen to; she’s writing exposition. As a result, New Year’s Eve can prove charming at times but never affecting.