From The Hallmark Aisle Of The Vast Wasteland Case File #31: New Year’s Eve
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s a twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flops, critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
For decades, it was commonplace for film critics to dismiss movies by comparing them to television shows. If a drama was contrived, melodramatic, and over-acted, or if it flaunted contempt for verisimilitude, it would often get compared to a soap opera. If a comedy had a weakness for labored set-ups, glib punchlines, broad characters, cheap stereotypes, and frantic mugging, it would often get compared to a sitcom. At the same time, if a television show illustrated unusual ambition and vision, it would frequently get praised for being cinematic in scope, sensibility, or style.
These comparisons implied a certain hierarchy of art forms that placed cinema above television. That wasn’t always the case. In the first golden age of television, the medium frequently ran high-minded, even educational programming that aimed to edify as well as entertain the masses. It brought a taste of the best Broadway had to offer to a mass audience, whereas movies frantically attempted to cope with the daunting new threat posed by television by embracing mindless spectacles and silly gimmicks like 3-D.
But by the time Newton Minow, the newly appointed chairman of the FCC, delivered the speech that introduced the concept of television as a “vast wasteland” in 1961, television was steadily devolving into a clattering, clamorous medium that was primarily devoted to selling ads by any means necessary, even if it meant flattering, insulting, and pandering to an audience it once hoped to uplift and educate. (Turns out there’s way more money in flattering, insulting, and pandering than there is in uplift and education.) In Minow’s famous speech before the National Association of Broadcasters on May 9, 1961, he told the audience:
“When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.”
Bear in mind that Minow was not addressing a convention of librarians or highbrow magazine editors. He was telling people whose livelihoods revolved around television that the growing medium was sick and destructive, a force for dumbing down the masses and making the world a more jaded, more debauched, more tedious, and less kind place. But he also wasn’t saying that television was inherently terrible or incapable of broadcasting great art. On the contrary, he starts the most famous anti-television jeremiad by conceding, “When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better.” That’s fucking bold. He’s saying that television isn’t just capable of being great; he’s saying that at its apex, television trumps all other art forms, while conceding that the majority of television is insufferable. That was just as true in 1961 as it is in 2012, when Louie, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Eastbound & Down, Game Of Thrones, Girls, and too many shows to mention here have elevated the medium to new heights of daring, ambition, and diversity. Television is supposed to be better than ever, yet it’s still synonymous with cynical, pandering, lazy, formulaic entertainment.
The cinematic 2011 flop New Year’s Eve paradoxically illustrates why television remains low on the ladder of respectability in spite of the feverish acclaim greeting its ring of champions. Though it was released theatrically and features titans of the big screen like Robert De Niro, Hilary Swank, and Michelle Pfeiffer, its aesthetic couldn’t be more closely aligned with television if it had a laugh track, live studio audience, and regular commercial breaks. The film may be short on blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, and sadism, but it’s certainly a formula comedy about totally unbelievable relationships of all stripes—familial, professional, and otherwise. And boredom. Oh sweet blessed Lord, does New Year’s Eve fit an awful lot of boredom into its 117-minute running time. And while it does not feature the screaming and cajoling commercials that offended Minow so greatly, it feels throughout like a commercial: for capitalism, for the free market, for romantic comedies, for formula, for our celebrity culture, and for the entertainment world at its ditziest and glitziest.
When I write that New Year’s Eve feels like two hours of television accidentally shipped to movie theaters, I don’t mean that it feels like Louie (where the film’s director, Garry Marshall, ironically filmed a brilliant supporting turn not too long ago) or Community or Mad Men. I mean that it feels as if Marshall—who made his name and his reputation on The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Me & The Chimp, and Mork & Mindy—simply dusted off an old script for Love, American Style (a show for which he wrote two episodes), changed some of the details, and presented it as the screenplay for the follow-up to his smash-hit 2010 ensemble comedy/romance, Valentine’s Day.
Like the television Minow warned the world about, New Year’s Eve is dedicated to soothing and infantilizing its audience, to treating them like dim-witted children who must have everything patiently pointed out to them and will devolve into hysterics if everything doesn’t unfold exactly as they expect it to. New Year’s Eve feels less like cinema, and more like a cross between a television movie (think of it as Stars Celebrate New Year’s Eve!) and a feature-length commercial. Re-watching New Year’s Eve, I was still half-convinced the film is an elaborate covert ad for a jewelry company; it certainly has that tone of gaudy romance buffed to a blinding sheen.
Visually, New Year’s Eve also shares an aesthetic with commercials for upscale luxury goods, opening with postcard-ready images of New York signifiers—children in a horse-drawn carriage, Central Park, the Manhattan skyline, the Statue Of Liberty, FAO Schwarz—while strings swell majestically. Then Hilary Swank, a long way from the gritty likes of Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby, guilelessly enthuses, “Some people swear there’s no beauty left in the world, no magic. Then how do you explain the entire world coming together on one night to celebrate the hope of a new year?”
That opening burst of tinsel-wrapped treacle establishes a nauseatingly sentimental tone from which the film seldom deviates. Swank plays a powerful, successful woman in charge of ensuring the ball drops in Times Square every New Year’s Eve, a function the film depicts as slightly more important than executing the D-Day invasion or hunting and killing Osama bin Laden. Swank is a powerful and successful professional woman, but since New Year’s Eve occupies the silly, glitzy universe of the rom-com, it lets us know that underneath her professional façade she’s really just a silly girly girl who’s afraid of heights and gets nervous easily and relies upon deadpan sidekick Ludacris to help her function in the world.
New Year’s Eve then introduces a Whitman’s Sampler of star-studded subplots that all speed their way toward a preordained happy ending as directly and simply as possible. Katherine Heigl is appropriately insufferable in the Katherine Heigl role of a shrill, unpleasant, and thoroughly unappealing chef who never quite got over being abandoned by a rock star whose intense magnetism and sexual charisma wow everyone he encounters. The casting of Jon Bon Jovi in this role says an awful lot about the film’s surreal disconnect from reality and the times.
Michelle Pfeiffer, meanwhile, plays a mousy little nothing who offers punky delivery boy Zac Efron tickets to a hot rock ’n’ roll party if he helps her fulfill everything left on her list of New Year’s resolutions, from visiting Bali to being “amazed.” Ashton Kutcher plays a sneering, cynical comic-book illustrator who’s too cool for the New Year’s Eve capitalist horseshit nonsense, until he’s stuck in an elevator with aspiring singer Lea Michelle, and his carefully cultivated façade of aloofness crumbles as he begins to fall for her.
Dashing businessman Josh Duhamel, meanwhile, evades the advances of the gorgeous women throwing themselves at him because he has a higher goal in mind: to be reconnected with a woman he met the previous New Year’s Eve who responded to his jibber-jabber about some corporate merger or something by telling him, “That’s all great. But how’s your heart?” In the world of New Year’s Eve, that qualifies as the height of romance and earthy sincerity, not horseshit preciousness.
Could this mystery woman be Sarah Jessica Parker, who spends her own New Year’s Eve worrying about daughter Abigail Breslin? Yes, yes it is. As part of New Year’s Eve commitment to pandering to all demographics, especially the ones that consume maudlin romantic comedies, New Year’s Eve suggests that hot, nubile, unattached 21-year-olds just can’t measure up to the middle-aged mother of a teenager when it comes to winning the heart of the film’s most handsome and desired cast member.
Robert De Niro co-stars as a dying man whose last wish is to see the ball drop on Times Square once the clock strikes midnight. De Niro may be an icon, but New Year’s Eve reduces everyone to just another player in just another subplot in a film whose ambition begins and ends with being a land-locked Love Boat. Every insultingly idiotic subplot and minor character is given equal weight, which is to say that every subplot and minor character is equally irrelevant and meaningless.
The exception is one of the film’s other Oscar-winners, Hilary Swank, who is cursed and blessed with having to deliver the film’s big monologue, a tribute to the New Year’s Eve spirit that’s the literary equivalent of Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage painting. The speech finds Swank improvising a grand philosophical meaning for the New Year’s Eve ball being stuck in mid-air when she tells the assembled audience, both live and on television:
“Hello, I’m Claire Morgan of the Times Square Alliance, and as you all can see, the ball has stopped halfway to its perch. It’s suspended there to remind us before we pop the champagne and celebrate the New Year to stop and reflect on the year that has gone by. To remember both our triumphs and our missteps, our promises made and broken. The times we opened ourselves up to great adventures or closed ourselves down for fear of getting hurt. Because that’s what New Year’s is all about: getting another chance, a chance to forgive, to do better, to do more, to give more, to love more, and stop worrying about what if and start embracing what will be. So when that ball drops at midnight, and it will drop, let’s remember to be nice to each other, kind to each other, and not just tonight but all year long. Thank you.”
At each stage in Swank’s monologue—a speech that tragically and inexplicably failed to net her a third Academy Award—the film cuts to the member of the cast her words most directly reference. When she talks about promises made and broken, for example, it cuts to Bon Jovi, who all but has a thought balloon emanating from his head reading, “Hey, I did make and break a promise when I asked Heigl to marry me, then bailed on her! It’s like she’s reading my thoughts!”
Star power, celebrity, and a deep-rooted belief in the power and truth of clichés are the malfunctioning engines that power New Year’s Eve. Stars occupy lead roles and bit parts, though it’s not entirely clear why some of those big names are on hand. Sofia Vergara, for example, mugs up a storm as Heigl’s sidekick in a tiny, thankless role. Then again, judging by the tone of her performance, it’s possible they cast Charo in the role, then replaced her with Vergara when Charo wouldn’t go big enough. Vergara played a similar role in a Tyler Perry movie not too long ago but was considerably more restrained.
Not even death can get in the way of New Year’s Eve’s corporate-mandated happy endings. De Niro gets to die happy when he makes it to New Year’s, and his daughter (Swank) is only briefly bummed before a nurse played by Halle Berry shows her how they celebrate the New Year: by drinking in the precious innocence of the newborn ward while Louis Armstrong redundantly croons “What A Wonderful World” to assure us yet again that everything will be okay, and that the beautiful, famous people we’ve been watching will overcome their minor problems to attain true happiness forever.
It would only be a slight exaggeration to call the world a hideous, soul-shaking miasma of unfathomable pain and horror. So there’s nothing wrong with telling familiar, sleek, glossy stories to help people escape the pain of their everyday lives and lose themselves in a world of fantasy for a little while. But New Year’s Eve is less interested in helping audiences forget their problems for two blissful hours than in narcotizing them with soothing pabulum they’ve seen countless times before and will go on to see countless times more.
The creation of art is on some level a denial of death, an attempt to create something eternal and lasting that will persist long after the physical body has disintegrated into nothingness. But the cynical fabrication of a product like New Year’s Eve represents something closer to a denial of life: its messiness, its darkness, its impossible contradictions, its aching, omnipresent, unavoidable pain. New Year’s Eve is a heart-shaped Mylar balloon of a movie from which no humanity, reality, or authentic emotion can emerge. Should a pin of harsh reality penetrate its thin, rubbery surface, all that would emerge is a whole lot of hot air.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure