“I Hate Valentine’s Day” reps a return to scrappy, low-budget filmmaking for Nia Vardalos, who scored one of the most profitable indies of all time with her screenwriting debut, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” only to struggle with successive follow-ups. However, the off-kilter warmth of that film is nowhere to be found in this one, a plodding mediocrity with an almost mercenary adherence to formula. Reteaming of Vardalos with her “Wedding” co-star John Corbett should up the interest level in advance of pic’s July 3 release, though it’s doubtful that word of mouth will carry it very far.
First seen turning the world on with her smile, scripter and first-time director Vardalos stars as Genevieve, a flower shop owner who is the darling of her impossibly cuddly Brooklyn neighborhood. Working with her pair of prancing gay assistants (Stephen Guarino and Amir Arison, both playing stereotypes imported from the early ’90s), she cheerfully opens up her store for the Valentine’s Day rush, blessed with a preternatural gift for advising clueless men on the best ways to woo their sweethearts (among her suggestions: chocolates, flowers).
Yet despite all her wisdom, Genevieve is afflicted with a self-inflicted dating handicap: Since she loves romance and hates relationships, she refuses to go on more than five dates with any one particular man, thus summarily cutting off all affairs before the giddiness of early infatuation can begin to decline. No one in Genevieve’s huge circle of colorful friends remarks on the utter preposterousness of this policy and, in fact, they all flock to her for advice on their own love lives.
Of course, Genevieve’s system comes immediately under fire when studly charmer Greg (Corbett) strolls into the shop. A former lawyer who has just quit the firm and bought a neighboring restaurant space in order to start up a tapas bar, Greg is dating a flight attendant yet unsure if the relationship is going anywhere (all the preceding backstory is spilled in the course of ordering a few roses). Things quickly go sour with the flight attendant, and Greg confides in Genevieve during the first of their five circumscribed dates, immediately hitting it off. Anyone who can’t see where this is going should have their driving privileges immediately revoked.
From here, “I Hate Valentine’s Day” hits all the requisite beats of the romantic-comedy liturgy with precision, but does so perfunctorily, as though filling out a quota. The central premise is unbelievable without being interesting or audacious, and its late attempts to expand the emotional palette palate just simply don’t come off.
Toplining her second movie of the season, after the recent “My Life in Ruins,” Vardalos is a decent comedic actress, but she clearly lacks the experience to direct herself on camera: For much of the film she wears a strained beauty-queen smile, delivering her lines like a kindergarten teacher explaining the metric system. Yet the biggest problem with her perf seems to revolve around a misunderstanding of her appeal. In “Wedding,” she radiated an awkward Everywoman vulnerability; here, she is effortlessly successful, smart, glamorous, beloved by friends who hang on her every word and able to pick and choose from handsome men she cruelly dismisses in accordance with her bizarre rules. Why the audience should sympathize with her plight is not a question that seems to have been raised.
Save for a few forced laughs at the expense of a heavily accented Indian man, the film is at least bereft of any ethnic caricature. Supporting characters run the gamut from Greg’s law-school buddy Cal (Gary Wilmes), who is so loathsome and irritating that he ceases to be recognizably human, to Genevieve’s adorably pathetic friend Tammy (the wonderful Zoe Kazan), who confuses courtship with stalking and who seems to have been beamed in from a smarter, cuter film.
Vardalos finds a suitably snappy rhythm, and shoestring technical work captures Gotham locations nicely.