Taylor Swift’s Dynamic Screen Presence Comes Through in Valentine’s Day

All-Star Film Provides High-Profile, Low-Pressure Screen Test for Singer-Songwriter

Editor’s note: Journalist Chris Willman attended a screening of Valentine’s Day this week in Los Angeles. The film premieres nationally Friday (Feb. 12).

There’s good news and bad news for Taylor Swift fans who are heading to the multiplex this weekend to check out her big-screen acting debut in Valentine’s Day. The possible reason for the teardrops on your Raisinets and popcorn: She has well under 10 minutes of screen time in the ensemble comedy, with just four scenes, two of which are under a minute long.

The good news: Swift makes the most of that limited time and is — quite unsurprisingly — a dynamic screen presence whom the camera clearly adores. You might think of her extended cameo as a high-profile, low-pressure screen test for bigger and better roles, and she passes with flying colors.

In-jokes abound in the fleeting bits that pair her with Taylor Lautner as a sweetly passionate high school couple. (Very slight plot spoilers follow.) There is a brief moment of bickering over which character claims “13” as his or her lucky number — which almost any Swift devotee will know is her real-life numerical charm. (Yes, as she noted in her Twitter feed the other day, there are even 13 letters in the title of this movie.)

Lautner, the Twilight star, says “I’m a little bit uncomfortable taking my shirt off in public,” which should produce the biggest laugh of anything in any movie so far this year. Clarifying her status for a TV reporter on the school football field, Swift points out that she is not a cheerleader but on the dance team, which may count as an allusion to the lyrics of “You Belong to Me,” in which, of course, Taylor also pointed out that she was not “cheer captain.”

But she’s hardly relegated to the bleachers here or to being any boy’s overlooked last choice. For one thing, she and Lautner do some serious, albeit very brief, necking, which does not appear to involve any stunt doubling. And after Lautner literally flips himself out of camera range, Swift sticks around to impress the TV reporter by sticking her lips out, duck-style, and doing the goofiest dance ever known to man, woman or tween. She couldn’t be more demonstrative, but even displays like this won’t mean she’ll have to stop playing a wallflower in some of her lyrics. Swift’s a beauty who — as her Saturday Night Live gig and this scene aptly demonstrate — just happens to be highly in touch with her inner geek.

Director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman) has said the Swift/Lautner subplot, to the extent you can call it that at all, was written into the screenplay partway into filming, and it shows. Theirs is the only coupling that doesn’t run into any romantic complication whatsoever. And Swift only briefly runs into a couple of the other characters — Jennifer Garner (in an elevator) and Emma Roberts (as a best school chum). Roberts plays a girl who is determined to lose her virginity with her boyfriend during lunch break, but Swift makes it clear to Lautner’s character that they won’t be having any such shenanigans, cheerfully declaring, “We’re gonna wait.”

(Nonetheless, parents of Swift’s youngest fans may want to be mindful of the PG-13 rating. This is a film that opens with scenes of long-legged beauties like Jessica Alba and Jennifer Garner getting out of bed with their boyfriends, closing with a DJ intoning the magic words: “Let’s get naked.”)

Swift won’t be the first country star to successfully cross over into movies, but she’s almost certainly the first with leading lady potential. Faith Hill clearly had designs on an acting career, but that seems to have been on hold ever since her appearance as a housewife/robot in the much-maligned The Stepford Wives failed to light up the screen. Shania Twain surely could have taken a shot at it, but she seemed disinterested, beyond a very funny cameo as herself in I Heart Huckabee’s that was too short to indicate whether she had screen presence or not. Among less glamorous country stars, icons like Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash eked out long IMDB resumes as supporting players but generally had to settle for made-for-TV movies if they wanted the lead, thanks to personas that didn’t lend themselves to anything but Westerns or rustic roles — something that clearly won’t be a problem for Swift.

In the pop realm, other young divas have suffered from a cast of “too much, too fast” when it came to taking the lead: see Britney Spears in Crossroads (or don’t, since no one else did) and Mariah Carey in Glitter. But Swift has already proven her comedienne chops on SNL and, wisely, has also taken the baby steps, “leave ’em wanting more” route here. Chances are, casting directors as well as fans will be wanting a lot more.

As for Valentine’s Day as a whole? It’s basically Crash printed on pure-sugarcane film stock or a remake of Steve Martin’s L.A. Story that makes that movie look like a hard-edged Scorsese film … or maybe a “Most Beautiful People” issue of People magazine magically come to life. It will make critics very, very grumpy and couples out on date night very, very happy.

But while you probably won’t see the film nominated for many Oscars in 2011, it’s not inconceivable that Swift’s “Today Was a Fairytale” could be up for a trophy next year. Perhaps mindful of the new rules about how the best song nominees have to occur in the body of the film and not just over the end credits, director Marshall has placed it in the movie twice, including over a scene where we see Swift crumple to the floor in sheer happiness. Obviously, her princess story isn’t over yet.