Garry Marshall appears to be flicking through the calendar for inspiration. His last movie was an ensemble romance called Valentine's Day. His latest is an ensemble romance called New Year's Eve, which the promotional blurb calls "the most dazzling night of the year". Such reckless inflation is going to make problems for him down the line. Independence Day has already been taken, so too Thanksgiving. So what's left – Labour Day? Columbus Day? Washington's Birthday? They don't have quite the same ring.
Not that Marshall seems to care, having settled on a template first struck by Love Actually in 2003. Instead of creating a plot, the idea is to cobble together a tray of canapé-sized situations and hope that the wattage of the celebrity cast will blind us to their inadequacy. New Year's Eve adopts the same sort of let's-be-friends voiceover Hugh Grant used to introduce Love Actually, a plea for seasonal cheer in a world where "some people believe there's no magic left". The pictures of Manhattan lit up like a shop window argue (or try to argue) that magic, on the contrary, is all around us. But it will take something wiser and wittier than Katherine Fugate's screenplay (she also write Valentine's Day) to deliver on that suggestion.
The movie's main event – a tradition for New Yorkers but perhaps unfamiliar to non-American audiences – is the Times Square ceremony of "the ball drop" to coincide with the new year striking. There's a person appointed to the job of ensuring the ball (large, glittering) does indeed drop, the Vice President of the Times Square Alliance, played by Hilary Swank. Do you suppose that the ceremony will pass off without a hitch this year? Swank, by the way, gets to do the film's big emotional homily, about new year being the time for fresh starts and "a chance to forgive". This would be the same Swank who recently outraged human rights groups by cheerleading at the birthday party of Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov, then on returning home fired her manager and team for involving her in the PR disaster. Maybe they should pencil in rapprochement talks with Swank for 31 December – could be their moment.
Few other lines here achieve such resonance. Fugate's script divides the labour into pairings of a mostly romantic or, in the case of Zac Efron's motorbike courier and Michelle Pfeiffer's wilted wallflower, a quasi-romantic nature. Jessica Biel, expecting a baby with husband Seth Meyers, gets into a hospital competition with another couple for the $25,000 being offered for the first birth of the new year. Katherine Heigl plays a party chef jilted and now re-pursued by famous rock star Jensen, played by Jon Bon Jovi, who "really responded to the character and wanted to do it". Must have been a stretch for him. Glee alumna Lea Michele plays a woman stuck in an elevator (poor thing) with cooler-than-thou jerk Ashton Kutcher, as much a lowlight here as he was in Valentine's Day. And, on the grounds of being New York's patron saint of singletons, Sarah Jessica Parker plays a mum who is neurotic about her 15-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) gadding about unescorted in Times Square. Parker is a beneficiary of one of the romantic subplots in which two characters who've spent the film in separate narratives turn out to have an unsuspected connection, a trick that might work if we gave two hoots about any of the characters.
The movie's VIP list goes on, rather in the style of the Christmas TV chat-show that packs out the sofa with star-names. Robert De Niro plays a cancer patient ekeing out his last hours in the hope of watching the ball drop: "Nothing prepared me for this," he croaks, referring either to death or to the quality of the script. (Possibly the same thing). Halle Berry plays his hospital room medic, Chris Bridges is a New York cop, Josh Duhamel is a well-born playboy who samples some blue-collar bonhomie and learns that "it's OK to listen to your heart" – one of several ghastly pep-pills ladled out to the audience like fruit punch at a party. Garry Marshall's approach to the job is essentially that of a pastor to his flock, never happier than when he's geeing them up with inspirational maxims and self-improving slogans. If he worked as hard at giving them laughs, he'd be a comic genius.
Marshall is 77 this year, a year older than Woody Allen. Like Allen, his career has been wildly uneven. His work in TV comedy was prolific both as writer and producer, The Odd Couple, Happy Days and Mork & Mindy among his credits in the 1970s. His feature films have been variable (The Princess Diaries is barely forgivable), though Pretty Woman (1990) is a significant feather in his cap.
It's been a solid crowd-pleasing career by Hollywood standards – which makes stuff like New Year's Eve much harder to take. Its mawkishess is exasperating, its movement arthritic, its grasp of comedy virtually nil. There isn't one single performance, not one single scene which you could point to and say, "That works." Either Marshall should hand Ms Fugate her papers and hire a decent screenwriter, or else pack in the idea of comedy altogether. The only one "dropping the ball" in this picture is himself.