If we're to believe the permissions notices at the end of the closing credits - and if we're not to believe them, then the very idea of movie credits is a sham and we're all rocking on the brink of anarchy - then somewhere within the movie Valentine's Day, though I didn't notice it, there is a poster for the movie Love Actually. This represents something close to an heroic level of honesty on the part of the filmmakers, who do not merely feel safe in ripping off a popular film but pointing at it and saying, "look, it's that movie we're ripping off!" For this, they have my absolute respect.

Superficially, the two films are of course identical: against a holiday backdrop (dawn till midnight on Valentine's Day, in this case - we're specifically told that it's a Monday, which was last true in 2005 and will be true again in 2011, which makes Valentine's Day either a period piece or a science-fiction movie), an interwebbed cast of many people explores different facets of love. On closer inspection, there's not quite so much overlap; only one of the plotlines in the new film, about the little boy with his first crush, seems to map directly onto one of the plotlines from the old film. But the intent is obvious. The two biggest differences are not plot-based at all: compared to Love Actually, Valentine's Day is almost completely devoid of sex (and what appears is almost exclusively centered on one character), and compared to Love Actually, Valentine's Day is not very good. Screenwriter Katherine Fugate and director Garry Marshall jam a staggeringly over-loaded cast through what feels like a dozen different plotlines - I won't even bother to start recapping them, it would take a cross between a flowchart and a Venn diagram to capture every nuance of how the 21 main characters interrelate - with an end result that is quite manic and "big", in the worst conceivable sense of "big". So eager are the filmmakers to include as many different characters and plot points as they can, the overall flow of the film is like an especially jerky game of hopscotch: first here, then over there, then way over there, and you're really not sure how on Earth you got from A to B to C.

There's actually one other big reason why Valentine's Day is different from Love Actually, and while it's somewhat more subtle and subjective, I think it points to the only really interesting element of the American film. Both movies are full of instantly recognisable faces, but where Love Actually is mostly full of famous actors, Valentine's Day is full of celebrities - like I said, a subjective difference. In the British film, you have Colin Firth and Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman and the like; people who are really quite talented, and that's why the film can sometimes shock you with a really powerful moment like Emma Thompson's quiet breakdown when she realises her husband is cheating on her. Valentine's Day has a couple good actors, but mostly it has been cast with an idea towards covering the broadest possible marketing sector, and this means matinee idols and other famous people. So we have: pin-up girls for the lads (Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel - a combo that gave me a slight headache given my tendency to get those two actresses confused as "the bad one" and "the bad one who sometimes has a smackeral of ambition"); pin-up girls for the intelligentsia (Jennifer Garner and Anne Hathaway); a pretty-boy movie actor (Bradley Cooper); two pretty-boy TV actors (Patrick Dempsey and Eric Dane); teenybopper idols (Taylor Swift and Taylor Lautner); a few people who could be better but often don't try to be (Queen Latifah, Jamie Foxx and Topher Grace); and the inevitable Ashton Kutcher, whose appeal and continued ability to be cast in things remains an enigma to me.

Since most of these people are, by and large, famous for being famous, Valentine's Day turns (quite unintentionally, I am certain) into something of a referendum on celebrity. The appeal of a movie like this one is obviously that it is defiantly comfortable and familiar, and to a certain degree, one casts people like that precisely because the audience wants to see them being the famous people we know already. That's mostly just what's going on, but in weird little ways, the movie keeps commenting on and messing with the exact nature of their celebrity. So we have Dempsey, playing a dreamboat doctor, except that he proves to be a complete asshole. Lautner gets an overt moment (the only one where the movie seems to be aware of its own game) when he grouses that he doesn't like to be seen with his shirt off. Garner, in one of the film's two largest roles, is playing an uninspired variation on every other character she's played for several years, but Kutcher (the other largest role) seems to be playing more of a parody of a Kutcher character: his character enjoys over-the-top love and respect and "wow, what a great guy!" sentiments from pretty much everyone else in the movie, which seems like nothing so much of an exaggeration of his tendency to play theoretical nice guys who can't overcome the actor's natural party-boy smugness. Julia Roberts - the only real movie star in the film - is cast completely against type, as a somewhat dour soldier flying home for just one night before she has to be shipped back to whatever combat theater she's coming from (she also gets the other most overt meta-gag in the film, but it doesn't come until the outtakes at the end credits, and thus doesn't really count). And Shirley MacLaine (who used to be a movie star) spends one of her two big scenes standing in front of herself, at a screening of 1958's Hot Spell. Of course, that the film is set in Los Angeles is itself a commentary on celebrity; the whole damn town is predicated on the concept of fame.

Now, the fact that Valentine's Day spends an awful lot of time commenting on the star identities of its large cast is not a sign that it is at all successful; the film never comes remotely close enough to embracing this possible reading to rise above its lifeless romantic comedy shell. I just thought it worth mentioning that it seems weird and intriguing, to me, that the movie spends so much time putting its famous cast in front of a funhouse mirror. That doesn't change the fact that only two people give good performances, Roberts and Hathaway. The former because she's obviously more relaxed than anyone else onscreen and seems to enjoy finding something new to do, even if it's in the most apparently disjointed of all the plot threads (I say apparently because it does tie in, although I'd bet almost anything you can figure out where it's going by the end of her first scene). The latter because her radiant earnestness is back in full force, a year after her last dismal appearance in a movie (the disastrous Bride Wars), and she also gets one of the only hard-edged characters to play (a part-time phone sex operator trying to hide it from her new boyfriend); at any rate she has a certain strength of will that doubles as charisma, and you can almost see her straining to keep the whole project aloft on her back.

It doesn't work, of course, but nothing would. This is pablum. Garry Marshall doesn't do anything else, but make the simplest kind of movies in the world not because they are interesting but because they are soothing (already I can't remember a single noteworthy thing about the film's visual aesthetic, either for good or ill). Well, soothing it is; soothing enough to leave you catatonic. Me, I like my romantic comedies when it was still a war of the sexes and not a series of easily buffed-out quibbles, but obviously not everyone shares my taste. At any rate, it's a perfect date movie: you'll miss absolutely nothing of merit if you make out in the back row instead of watching the film.