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On ‘New Year’s Eve,’ A Whole Lot Of Nothing Going On

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 8, 2011

There’s an old folk tale called “Stone Soup,” in which a group of hungry wanderers hoodwinks a town into coming together to create a delicious stew from nothing but a pot of stones. It’s generally considered a story about cooperation in problem-solving, but its more cynical lesson is, “If you methodically distract them with enough razzmatazz, sometimes people don’t notice you’re serving soup made of rocks.”

At its heart, Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve is soup made of rocks. Similar in structure to its predecessor Valentine’s Day, the film follows eight (!) stories, all as underdeveloped as you would expect from a film trying to tell eight stories in two hours and also cram in a Ryan Seacrest cameo, a couple of bad musical numbers, and the most unflattering dress Katherine Heigl has ever worn. (Yes, that includes the 27 bridesmaid’s dresses she wore in the movie where she wore 27 bridesmaid’s dresses.)

And what are the eight stories?

Katherine Heigl and Jon Bon Jovi fight.

Jessica Biel and Seth Meyers have a baby.

Zac Efron takes pity on a mousy Michelle Pfeiffer.

Josh Duhamel wears a tux and rides in an RV.

Sarah Jessica Parker singly mothers Abigail Breslin.

Hilary Swank drops the big shiny ball in Times Square.

Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele get trapped in an elevator.

Robert De Niro faces his mortality with the assistance of his pretty nurse, Halle Berry.

When it comes to making any of these tales interesting, the film is 0-for-8.

Of the couples, the only one that even arguably has any chemistry is Biel and Meyers, and that’s more comedic chemistry than romantic chemistry. Not one of the single people is at all compelling — not even De Niro, whose entire character description seems to be, “Croaks slowly. Like, for hours.”

The only entertaining way to watch New Year’s Eve is as a cruel experiment in which performers stranded with absolutely no script support are forced to subsist on pure presence, which quickly becomes a blood sport in which only a few survive.

Kutcher, for instance, is playing an undefined slob who’s inexplicably attracted to the true-to-type uptight striver played by Lea Michele. But he does it with just enough charm and confidence that he becomes a beacon in the unending darkness that is most of the rest of this movie. His smile is more effective than whole storylines. He’s not doing much actual acting, but that ability to put shock paddles to the chest of a dead scene with his face is why he gets work.

Seth Meyers, for his part, can deliver a punch line about as well as anyone currently working, so jokes that aren’t really funny at all become funny because he puts them on his back and carries them.

Similarly, Halle Berry is handed a scene towards the end that could almost be an acting exercise: You know nothing about this character except this demographic sketch, there’s been no setup, and you’re playing opposite a computer monitor. Go!

And Berry lends it a dignity of which it is utterly unworthy. She’s great to watch even when she’s not doing anything — and this movie is how you know that, because in this movie, she is not doing anything, perhaps more than she’s ever not done anything before.

Others are not even so minimally fortunate. Heigl’s fired-up style has worked in a romantic comedy or two, but Bon Jovi’s painfully mellow demeanor is the worst possible match for her. She specializes in half-hostile banter, but he gives nothing back, which makes it seem like she’s just yelling at him all the time.

Pfeiffer is playing a woman whose sadness is conveyed primarily by her terribly styled brown hair, who has the naivete of Rain Man and the nervous energy of a coffee-gulping hamster. It’s not clear whether Efron’s affable doofus actually likes her, merely pities her, or just has a thing for being blinked at a lot.

Josh Duhamel is pretty, but here his character really might as well be named Tux Mannequin. Sarah Jessica Parker is playing an older, duller Carrie Bradshaw without the sex or the friends. Hilary Swank won two Oscars, and here she’s adrift in yet another story about how career women’s lives are passing them by.

Various side players go to waste as well: Sofia Vergara playing the one-dimensional sex bomb people often wrongly assume she’s playing on Modern Family; Hector Elizondo reduced to slapstick; Cherry Jones gamely leaking tears in a tiny part that doesn’t deserve her.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with silly romantic fare or with interlocking featherweight vignettes — in fact, even Valentine’s Day worked this formula more successfully than this follow-on does. But the individual pieces have to be made with at least a little love. It’s not enough to just gather faces for the poster, get Lea Michele to sing with the moaning earnestness she brings to Glee, put Sarah Jessica Parker in princess shoes, throw some glitter, play some Pink, and call it a day.

Because what these folks have here, no matter how much they’ve dumped into it, is not satisfying. What they have here is soup made of rocks. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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