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With Swift and Lautner, a valentine to stunt casting

February 10, 2010 |  7:32 pm

"He's Just Not That Into You" started it last year, and now "Valentine's Day" is upping the ante: Throw into one romantic comedy actors who appeal to as many constituencies as possible and watch the audience come out in droves.

Va At least that's the hope for "Valentine's Day," the Garry Marshall confection that takes actors from pretty much every age, creed and background and tosses them into one crock pot of a marketing casserole.

Latinos (George Lopez), blacks (Jamie Foxx), frat boys (Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Ashton Kutcher), older women (Patrick Dempsey), the "Hangover" crowd (Bradley Cooper) and demos heretofore not thought of (not to mention those who like seeing actual movie stars such as Anne Hathaway and Julia Roberts) all will find a face with which to identify in this ensemble story of love and loss (or just love and love)  set to open this weekend.

It's not so much that there's casting diversity in the film -- though from the sheer volume of names one wonders if studio execs were ticking boxes as much as scrutinizing sizzle reels -- but how that diversity is being flogged. If you live anywhere within radius of a major metropolitan city, you've seen the faces on the sides of every bus and billboard. Call it kitchen-sink marketing, or marketing as imagined by the U.S. Census Bureau. It's kind of cynical and, we have to admit, kind of brilliant. Throw as many faces at the wall as you can and some contingent, somewhere will come out to see them. ("Love, Actually," another ensemble piece and a film to which this movie has been compared, pulls of the vignette approach with a far more coherent and less gimmicky cast.)

But for all the groups that the "Valentine's Day" stars (presumably) bring in, the real prize is tween girls, a demographic that the film grabs with with the coupling of Taylor Lautner and Taylor Swift (more on the latter below), whose appearance in the film is fleeting but whose demographic value is incalculable.

Actually, one can calculate it. The Swift/Lautner combo is so strong that the movie is tracking astoundingly well among girls ages 13 to 19, who increasingly pay to see romantic comedies and will especially see it now that their contemporaries -- arguably the two most famous people in the country not yet old enough to drink -- appear together on the screen (just as they did briefly in real life). All that's missing is Miley Cyrus jamming with the Jonas Brothers.

How important is the Taylors' appearance to the film's performance? The tween interest they generate will be enough to overcome tepid word-of-mouth and a putrid Rotten Tomatoes score (16% and dropping), very possibly turning the film into the biggest opening in history for a romantic comedy -- a record previously held by a Nashville mile (albeit over three days) by the $57 million of "Sex and the City."

Hollywood these days get a lot of flak for movies that repurpose toy brands, going after the coveted  and easily mocked grail of "pre-awareness." But there's a such a thing as actor pre-awareness too, the kind that lands country idols-cum-Twitter celebrities who have little acting pedigree in major studio movies. ("Swift, especially, seems entirely undirected, as she jumps around, makes faces and jabbers on inanely. If she's to have a film career, she needs to find a skilled director to tamp her down and channel her obviously abundant energy," is how Variety critic Todd McCarthy succinctly described Swift's, er, skills.)

Warner Bros. and New Line are already planning a sequel to "Valentine's Day." The holiday will be new. The casting will probably be more of the same.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Valentine's Day" one-sheet. Credit: Warner Bros.

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When the film bombs/fizzles in 7 days can we now put to rest the notion that tweens rule the box office and that movies and popular entertainment for adults can be made once again?


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