Curiously absent from the Oscar discussion so far this season is a small film, with a largely unknown cast, that tackles the complexities of aging perhaps better than any other film that I've ever seen. Inexplicably marketed by Warner Bros. as a comedy with a coherent plot, 'New Year's Eve' stands out above all for its jagged lack of cohesion. It takes a brave filmmaker to feature the talents of both Ryan Seacrest and Jim Belushi in a single film. Garry Marshall, the director of 'New Year's Eve,' is that filmmaker.
Before we can properly understand the message that this movie is trying to deliver, we must first learn about the forces that drive this small but resilient cast of characters. A cast of characters who, despite being so intimately intertwined, make it a point to talk only on the phone with one another instead of face-to-face. Even when they are in the same room, they remain so blissfully unaware of one another's presence that they never actually share a scene.
This narrative disjointedness is a clear metaphor for the disconnect within our society. A lesser director would give in to the temptation to let his cast members share at least a few scenes together, but Garry Marshall is too clever to fall into the trap of creating an intelligible film with characters that you are forced to care about. By not focusing on any single character for more than four minutes at a time, he forces the viewer to ask painful questions about society as a whole and what has become of it. In fact, more than once while watching 'New Year's Eve,' I thought to myself, My God, what has happened to our society? This is why 'New Year's Eve' shines. This is why 'New Year's Eve' doesn't just define cinema; it defines us.
Ingrid, played by an actress named Michelle Pfeiffer ('Wolf'), is alone. She works a job she hates (in the music industry -- I mean, can you imagine working at a job so terrible?) for a boss she despises, played by John Lithgow ('Ricochet'). How sleazy is Lithgow? When Ingrid asks for her year-end bonus, Lithgow immediately hands her a check for an unknown amount that appears, judging from Ingrid's facial expression, to be lower than what she had expected. How such a vile creature is permitted to roam the Earth this author will never understand. But there is hope that Ingrid will transcend her attenuated circumstances, and that hope arrives in the person of a bicycle courier named Paul (Zac Effron).
Paul, who is 30 years younger than Ingrid, is the personification of Marshall's belief that age is irrelevant. You see, Paul's sister is played by Sarah Jessica Parker ('Striking Distance') -- even though Parker is 22 years older than Efron. To a viewer, it's obvious that Parker would be better suited to the role of Efron's mother than to that of his sister, but Efron's character never questions the film's subtly aberrant internal logic. He is oblivious to age and common sense. No scene more wholly encompasses this than the one in which Paul takes Ingrid to Tiffany's. The two are shown riding Paul's scooter up 6th Ave in Manhattan. An instant later, they are seen riding up 1st Ave, seven avenues to the east. Then, the instant after that, they arrive at Tiffany's on Madison Ave, five avenues back west. The route Paul chooses perfectly illustrates how the scattershot inconsistencies of 'New Year's Eve' represent those of his own youth, and ours.
Oscar-winner Robert De Niro ('The Fan') gives his most commanding performance in years, playing a man who spends nearly all of his screen time asleep in a hospital bed. His doctor, Cary Elwes (reprising his unforgettable role as a doctor in 'No Strings Attached') gives De Niro's Stan no chance of surviving until the next day, even though Stan appears to the untrained eye to be perfectly healthy and well-nourished, an anomaly that serves only to make the situation all the more tragic. Stan spends his waking moments lamenting the failure of his relationship with his daughter, played by two-time Oscar-winner Hillary Swank ('The Core'), to a nurse portrayed by Oscar-winner Halle Berry ('The Flintstones'). It's a testament to Marshall's courage as a director that, when Swank finally arrives to pay last respects to her father, not one word about their failed relationship is even mentioned. In truth, no words are needed. Everything the audience needs to know is said by the look on both actors' faces -- a look that clearly signals, "I'd rather be anywhere than where I am right now."
Jon Bon Jovi plays Jenson, who, in addition to serving as the love interest of Katherine Heigl ('Bride of Chucky'), is described in the film as "the hottest act in the music industry." Jon Bon Jovi will celebrate his 50th birthday on March 2. This feisty swipe at the music industry's obsession with youth dovetails with Marshall's serial assaults on our culture of consumerism and blatant self-promotion. How else to explain Marshall's decision to end the film with a dramatic close-up on a building-size Times Square billboard emblazoned with the poster for another Warner Bros. film, 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows'? And how else to explain how Blu-ray copies of Marshall's last film, 'Valentine's Day,' wind up emerging from the vaginal canal of a key character. (This really happens.) If it weren't so obvious that Marshall's hatred of our consumerist culture has driven him to near-reckless acts of self-sabotage, I would be tempted to think, "Wow, Garry Marshall has really become a hack."
I mean, a rational human being could also ask, "Why are Seth Meyers and Jessica Biel even in this movie?" -- since their story about trying to have the first baby of the new year has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. But their non-involvement with the rest of the story is precisely the reason they belong in this movie. And if you have to ask what I mean by that, then I'm warning you: under no circumstances should you ever see 'New Year's Eve.' Ever.
Ashton Kutcher is in this movie, and deserves special credit for not appearing in a single scene that is in any way memorable. It takes a special talent to know when to just get out of the way and let the script do the magic.
Every single person associated with this movie should be ashamed. I mean, as a society, we should all be ashamed that this movie even has to exist to deliver the message it so powerfully conveys. That's how far we've fallen, and thank God 'New Year's Eve' is there to pick us up. This one's on all of us. But every man, woman and child on this Earth should be forced to watch 'New Year's Eve,' because if you feel that you don't have any responsibility for its existence, you need to take a really hard look at yourself in the mirror.
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[Photo: Warner Bros.]
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