The Garry Marshall Plan

Is the director of New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day trying to take over movies with the equivalent of the toilet read?

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Jemal Countess / Getty Images

Director and producer Garry Marshall poses during the "New Year's Eve" premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City in December 2011.

I saw New Year’s Eve last week for reasons I won’t go into, and my goodness, what a terrible movie. Shallow characters, stale stories and jokes that make the stories look cutting edge. The best and worst thing about it is the all-star cast that includes Robert DeNiro, Hilary Swank, Halle Berry, Michelle Pfeiffer and an even larger complement of non-Oscar honorees. Like Valentine’s Day, and to a lesser extent, Love, Actually, it’s less a single narrative than a collection of badly written and indifferently staged vignettes about various interconnected characters, all taking place around a particular holiday. In the case of Love, Actually (written and directed by Richard Curtis), that holiday is Christmas, and I trust I don’t need to tell you what the other two are. In the movie industry, two projects make a trend and three make a genre. I think we’ve got a new one here.

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While Love, Actually certainly has its share of detractors, even most of them would likely agree that it’s much better than the other two, both of which were directed by Garry Marshall. Marshall’s sprawling career has included not only directing such other features as Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries but executive-producing landmark TV series like Happy Days, The Odd Couple, and Mork and Mindy. During the seemingly interminable wait for New Year’s Eve‘s jaw-dropping closing credits, I found myself wondering how an entertainment demigod finds himself cranking out such dreck. Because I think we all know he’s not done yet.

Then it hit me: Garry Marshall knows exactly what he’s doing. I was the one who was getting it all wrong.

Think about what happens on your cable dial around Christmas. It starts getting clogged with the classics like A Christmas Story, It’s A Wonderful Life, and yes, in recent years, Love, Actually, all beamed into millions of homes. But nobody’s actually watching them. Everyone’s already seen them; they just have them playing in the background while other things go on, whether it’s wrapping gifts or the big family gathering. Nobody actually pays attention to them any more. But their producers still get the same size residual checks every time they air.

Now, Marshall is systematically staking out similar territory around the other holidays. TBS, TNT and other cable networks will almost certainly start loading their late-December and early-February schedules with his star-bloated holiday extravaganzas in the next few years. And then you can tune in and focus on them as much or as little as you want; Marshall doesn’t care. In fact, these movies are undoubtedly better if you’re not actually paying attention, and can just glance over casually every few minutes and say to your friends, “Hey, there’s Hector Elizondo” or whoever. These movies are not intended to be consumed in one sitting, like I and a few million others have already unwisely done in multiplexes around the country. Rather, they’re the film equivalent of a toilet-read. If that’s the only goal, why bother going to the effort of producing something with any artistic merit? I have to admire the cynical genius of it, even as I recall walking out of the theater last week dizzy from rolling my eyes.

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Marshall probably doesn’t need any more money. And at 77, the pop-culture legacy of the man who made superstars out of Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway, and Robin Williams (not to mention the whole Fonzie thing), is already secure. Now he’s out to take over the entire television calendar for years if not decades to come, and as long as his famous friends, protégées and alumni keep showing up for what must be pretty undemanding shooting schedules, I don’t see any way to stop him.