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New Year’s Eve: It’s Good, But It’s No Love Actually

December 31, 2011

New Year's EveI must confess: when I decided to write a post about New Year’s Eve, the latest holiday-themed, celebrity-crammed offering from New Line Cinema, I expected to spend most of the post trashing the film. These types of movies seem to be heavy on star power and light on substance, decent writing or compelling acting. Then I actually saw the movie, and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised. While there are plenty of eyeroll-inducing moments during the first half of the movie, in the end it was a sweet, feel-good way to say goodbye to 2011 and welcome in 2012.

While NYE ended up being much better than I expected, it does not come close to being as good as Love Actually, arguably the originator of the holiday-themed, celebrity-crammed movies that seem to be made every year now. I found myself comparing and contrasting the two movies during my NYE viewing. Both movies try to fit about a dozen or so storylines into a two-hour film, with some interweaving and overlapping to tie it all together.  The formula that was invented by the writers of Love Actually seems to have been copied by the writers of New Year’s Eve, but small changes were made, and those changes affect the overall feel of the film.

In both LA and NYE, there is a storyline involving a friendship between a man and a woman which serves to sort of anchor both characters. In LA, the friendship is between Emma Thompson and Liam Neeson. The movie begins with the death of Neeson’s wife, and much screen time is given to show how he deals with her loss. Emma Thompson is the friend he turns to for support. The writers never explain how or why they are friends; there is no backstory given. Instead, the audience must pick up its own clues and fill in the story on its own. These two people seem to be about the same age, and it’s established early on that they have children about the same age who go to school together. It’s not unreasonable or burdensome for the audience to assume that they became friends through their kids and then move on. You don’t need to know the backstory to understand what happens between them in the movie, but having a little context helps the audience understand it more fully. New Year’s Eve contains a storyline about the friendship between Hilary Swank and Common. This friendship is highlighted throughout the film, and as with LA, no explanation is given for how these two people became friends in the first place. Hilary Swank plays the new Vice President of the Times Square Alliance, who is responsible for making sure the ball drops at midnight. Common plays a NYC cop who is assigned to the Times Square detail. Whereas is LA, the writers give you clues as to how the friendship developed, in NYE there is nothing. No clues, no hints, no stray pieces of dialog to fit together. This lack of context actually becomes distracting. You see certain events unfold in their relationship onscreen, and you have no way of gauging why those events are important to them or to the overall story.

An important part of any film is the believability of the relationship between two people. When the relationship is unbelievable in any respect, the film sort of falls apart, unless that unbelievability is used for comic affect. In Love Actually, all the partners seem pretty evenly matched. There are no ugly guys with hot wives. There are two unlikely relationships that work in the end: Colin Firth and his housekeeper, and Hugh Grant and his catering manager. The writers don’t expect you to buy into these relationships straight-away. They make the relationships evolve onscreen organically, so that in the end it doesn’t seem unnatural for these two sets of people to end up together. That is not the case in New Year’s Eve. Jon Bon Jovi and Katherne Heigl play starcrossed lovers. He proposed before going out on his last tour, then bolted when he realized what the commitment would mean. She moved on and now runs a successful catering company in charge of the food at the New Year’s party where his band is performing. Much time is given to his begging for a second chance and her rejecting him because she’s created her own life for herself. What is never explained is how they met to begin with, or what their relationship was like before he got cold feet. Given that Katherine Heigl was barely out of diapers when Bon Jovi started performing, it’s very hard to accept at face value that these two are meant to be together. There’s no onscreen evolution, there’s no natural development, so in the end, when they inevitably get back together, it doesn’t really feel right.

Another major difference between the two films that I think really affected the movement of the story is the use of time markers. Though Love Actually is about love, actually (natch), the stories are all centered around Christmas. The movie begins five weeks before Christmas, and the audience is explicitly told how time is passing with a sort of weekly countdown. In New Year’s Eve, while it’s obvious that everything in the movie happens on New Year’s Eve, there is no sense of how time is passing in the film. It clearly begins in the morning and ends just after midnight, but in between the audience is given no indication as to what time of day each particular event is occurring. One of the climaxes of the movie involves the New Year’s ball that is not lighting properly, and everyone is scrambling to fix it on time. While it’s dark outside, there’s no way of knowing whether it’s 6:00 pm or 11:45 pm. Without knowing how long they have to fix the ball, there’s no real sense of urgency in the scene. The audience doesn’t know whether they have hours or minutes, and therefore it’s hard to really care. Since Love Actually takes place over several weeks, each time the audience gets to “drop in” on the characters, it feels as if time has passed and life has continued on while the audience wasn’t looking. In New Year’s Eve, it doesn’t feel that way. Since all the action is crammed into one day, everything on screen feels really significant, and also rushed. There’s no sense that the characters are continuing to live their lives while the camera is on someone else.

The best films are those about the relationships between people. Love Actually gets this right; while it’s centered around Christmas, the film is really about all the different types of relationships in the world: fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. New Year’s Eve, unfortunately, is not. Relationships are the vehicle through which our characters make it through the day, but the movie is all about the holiday, and what the holiday means to each person. It’s a subtle difference, but a significant one. I could watch Love Actually year-round and it would still be meaningful; New Year’s Eve is really only going to work at the end of the year. All that being said, New Year’s Eve is still a good film, and it does seem to capture that feeling we all have at the end of the year of time passing, resolutions left unfulfilled, and new ones to be made in the new year. It’s a good movie to watch this weekend, before you head out to count down the final moments of 2011.

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