(CNN) -- When John Carpenter decided to make a horror movie set at Halloween, he probably had some notion that it would goose up the story and provide a neat gimmick for the marketing guys. But it was his idea, not theirs. You couldn't say the same for the next dozen movies in the series.
Lately Hollywood has become fixated on the Christmas movie -- with more TV screenings, more sales and more rentals each and every year, it's the seasonal tie-in that just keeps on giving. So it was only a matter of time before someone had the bright idea of pinning a film to the 14th of February. Why should Hallmark and Teleflora get all the action?
With "Pretty Woman" director Garry Marshall shepherding an all-star cast that includes Jessicas Alba and Biel, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Garner, Queen Latifah, Taylor Swift and (oh yeah) Julia Roberts -- not forgetting Ashton Kutcher and a bunch of other guys -- "Valentine's Day" might be considered the ultimate date movie. That's the dream.
The reality is forgettable, something like a Robert Altman movie without the calories, but loaded with sweetener. Or "Love Actually" with better dental work.
The smiles may be brighter, but screenwriter Katherine Fugate doesn't have the shamelessly sentimental streak that makes Richard Curtis such an irresistible proposition for some, or his knack for stacking up sequences of giddy farcical embarrassment.
It would be harsh to describe "Valentine's Day" as a pale imitation of "Love Actually" -- I disliked it less, actually -- but there's nothing remotely as funny as Bill Nighy's desperate pop crooner here, nor anything as poignant as Emma Thompson's scenes with philandering husband Alan Rickman.
Marshall does match Curtis in one respect: his failure to juggle a dozen romantic plot-lets over the course of a single day that goes through more time-zones than seems feasible in the circumstances.
The winner in this lottery is Ashton Kutcher's florist, appropriately named Reed, who begins the movie proposing to Jessica Alba and whose business provides a linchpin for several subsidiary couples. Jennifer Garner's infatuated schoolteacher also benefits from a developed romantic throughline (predictable as it may be), though she's also an actress capable of shading a formulaic scene with surprising emotional nuance. She's also a mean hand with a baseball bat.
Indeed, one way of approaching this motley box of candies would be to play the role of Simon Cowell judging all the acting idols. Garner goes through to the next round. So do Bradley Cooper and Julia Roberts, charming in a trifle about two passengers on a long-haul flight.
Not so sure about Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel, though; the former even comments on his own token status ("I'm the chocolate") as a TV journalist looking for Valentine's human interest stories, while Biel overdoes it as a neurotic agent who hosts an annual "I Hate Valentine's Day" party. Topher Grace makes minimal headway in a lousy part, wondering if he should get hung up about Anne Hathaway's phone sex entertainer (a maybe).
Eric Dane's single NFL star makes the cut. Emma Roberts, as a teen planning on having sex for the first time during lunch break? I don't think so.
You begin to grasp how the movie resembles an obstacle course, with each famous face a hurdle on the way to the fade-out -- and why it feels too long by about ... a day.
Marshall does capture some sense of Los Angeles as a city, though the overwhelmingly white-bread cast hardly suggests a "Crash"-like diversity (his regular Hector Elizondo notwithstanding). But the film doesn't have time or space to press any of its stories beyond the clichés -- or the desire, for that matter.
It's too bland to get upset about, but the best use for "Valentine's Day" I can think of requires home viewing: it's a natural for a drinking game. Take a slug every time any character refers to the date. You'll be pie-eyed before Kutcher gets dumped.
"Valentine's Day" is rated PG-13 and runs 117 minutes.