It takes a certain filmmaking sensibility to make a two-hour, massive-ensemble comedy set almost entirely in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and yet not allow a single character to get drunk. In that sense, Garry Marshall deserves some credit for the risk-averse “New Year’s Eve,” which revisits the narrative apparatus of his 2010 “Valentine’s Day” (written by Katherine Fugate, who also scripted here) to even lesser returns. Still, fans of Hallmark-card sentiment and slumming stars, of which there are plenty, should produce strong if unspectacular first-week business.
Offering around a dozen barely there, aggressively agreeable mini-stories spliced together and spit out with lawnmower-style eloquence, the film is pushed to punishing lengths by the engorged cast list, which prevents any individual plot from deepening beyond single-sentence character descriptions and dilemmas. The overall effect is like being crushed under an avalanche of throw pillows.
The worst of the vignettes features parents-to-be Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel competing with another couple to have the first baby born in the New Year, which occasions some upsettingly prolific use of the words “hoo-hah” and “va-jay-jay.” Elsewhere, caterer Katherine Heigl is the scorned ex-paramour of a Jon Bon Jovi-like rock star (Jon Bon Jovi); Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele are hipster neighbors trapped in a bizarrely roomy, well-appointed elevator; Robert De Niro and Halle Berry are a cancer patient and attending nurse, respectively; Sarah Jessica Parker and Abigail Breslin have an ill-defined mother-daughter feud; Hilary Swank is in charge of planning the Times Square ball drop; Josh Duhamel is stranded out in the sticks; and Sofia Vergara and Russell Peters allow the filmmakers to laugh at their respective accents.
The strangest thread, and the only one that seems to suggest a more interesting story hidden somewhere beneath, involves Zac Efron as an eminently smackable, jive-talking bike messenger hired by a harried secretary (Michelle Pfeiffer) to help her fill out a list of increasingly elaborate New Year’s resolutions (although with such entries as “be amazed” and “go to Bali,” she appears to have mistaken resolutions for letters to Santa). At times seeming to suggest that Pfeiffer’s character is on the verge of suicide, and at others planting the strangely alluring possibility of a Harold-and-Maude romance, the pairing is just off enough to be intriguing. And then … absolutely nothing happens with it.
Very little happens anywhere else, either. Few of the plot strands connect to one another, much less resolve themselves with any degree of wit or daring. The filmmakers seem to have never heard of Chekhov’s gun, and go to great lengths to mention specific character traits or draw relationships between distant characters, only to drop them immediately afterward. Balancing this glut of stories also results in some inelegant dialogue; at times, characters even interrupt one another’s expository lines with other, unrelated, equally expository lines.
Most of the actors at least seem to be enjoying themselves, and none seem overly concerned about creating actual characters in such limited environs. Second-unit photography paints a pleasantly superficial, tourist-oriented picture of New York, though many key narrative moments look strangely gauzy and ill shot.
Setting most of the film in billboard-choked Times Square provides for extensive product-placement opportunities in ostensibly unobtrusive fashion, most notably with a lovingly extended shot of an ad for fellow upcoming Warner Bros. release “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”