New Year's Eve

Five... Four... Three... Two... One... Happy New Year!

The focal point for all this "New Year's Eve" action is the countdown to 2012, represented by the ceremonial "ball drop" in Times Square. Imagine one person being responsible for seeing that this spectacle goes off without a hitch, live, while the eyes of the world watch... and that would be Claire, the newly promoted Vice President of the Times Square Alliance, portrayed by Hilary Swank.

Swank, who trained with her real-life counterpart for the role, admits, "I had no idea of what goes on behind the scenes. As an audience member you think someone pushes a button and it just happens, but there is so much that can go wrong. Is it going to drop or isn't it? From the time you meet Claire to where the story ends there are a lot of dramatic and funny things that happen on that platform, any of which could potentially ruin the entire event - not to mention her career."

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As she struggles with the logistics of keeping it all on track, while holding the media at bay and trying to keep everyone's midnight appointment with tradition, she is privately mindful of another important appointment she means to keep when all the hoopla is over. The details of this late date she has confided to only one other person: her dear friend Brendan, an NYPD officer, played by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, accompanying her on the Times Square night shift.

As it turns out, Claire needs all the support she can rally when it appears that the ball's propulsion mechanism is in dire need of a gifted engineer - namely, the recently laid-off Kominsky, played by Hector Elizondo in a part written specifically for him. A longtime member of the Marshall repertory and often cited as the director's good luck charm, the versatile actor has appeared in every one of his seventeen feature films.

Kominsky has tended this complex machinery for years and knows it better than anyone. The question is, even if he can be located in time, will he be willing to return to his former job and coax his "baby"? Says Elizondo, "When he gets the call he's not sure he wants to help. He doesn't know if Claire was the person who fired him, so he's wary. But they need his expertise. If he comes back it will be for that and, frankly, for the sake of what the night itself means."

But the ball drop is only part of the show. Claire is also charged with coordinating the evening's headline act, rock superstar Jensen, set to kick off the festivities at 12:01 following an earlier gig at a private party nearby. Jensen is played by the multi-talented Jon Bon Jovi, who worked his shooting schedule into a break in his recent worldwide tour. Says Karz, "Bon Jovi is the most successful touring act in the world. Apart from that and raising his family, Jon wasn't really thinking about making another movie, but when he read the script he really responded to the character and wanted to do it."

Even single-named international rock stars have problems and what's troubling Jensen on this festive night is a heartache he's been carrying too long, over a woman he left behind for the wrong reasons. "Now he's trying to think of a way back into her life, a way to get back into her good graces, if that's even possible," Bon Jovi explains.

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Katherine Heigl plays Laura, the girl he let slip away. Although still hurt and angry about the way they parted a year ago, Laura has gone on with her life and earned her own measure of success, parlaying her culinary talents into a growing catering business. Tonight she's handling her highest-profile job ever: an exclusive New Year's Eve bash for the rich and famous... at which Jensen is scheduled to perform.

"It all comes to a head at the party," says Heigl. "Their meeting is immediately contentious. Without warning, Laura just slaps him, out of nowhere, and storms off, and then you realize they have a history. They were serious about each other once but he moved on without any explanation. He broke her heart and she's been harboring a lot of resentment ever since, just dreaming of the day when she could let him have it."

Clearly, the singer would have a better chance with Laura's vivacious sous-chef, Ava, played by Sofia Vergara. Ava is thrilled to be working this fantastic venue, doubly thrilled to catch an up-close-and-personal glimpse of Jensen and then shocked to see her boss take a swing at him. Still, she recovers quickly enough, Vergara confirms, to help Laura vent: "We did a scene in the kitchen where Laura is so mad she's just throwing food and Ava is there to help, handing her tomatoes and fruit to toss. It was a lot of fun."

Because "Jensen and Laura have a love story with a serious side, we put Sofia into the middle of it to help bring out the humor of the situation," Marshall explains. "And she does so, beautifully."

Unbeknownst to Jensen, there could be more trouble ahead. Making her feature film debut, Broadway and television star Lea Michele appears as Elise, the rocker's newly hired back-up singer, who just got unexpectedly delayed en route to the concert. It's the worst possible luck, tonight of all nights, on the brink of her first big break.

Adding insult to injury, Elise is stuck for the unknown duration with what appears to be the only guy for miles around who could make things even worse: Randy. Played by Ashton Kutcher, Randy is a too-cool-to-care killjoy who has nothing good to say about anything, and especially about New Year's Eve, against which he seems to hold some kind of grudge. Kutcher admits, "He's a bit of a jerk. His holiday plan is to stay home and avoid the whole celebration because all the amateur partiers are crowding the streets - all those guys who don't go out all year and then suddenly go bananas on New Year's Eve - and he thinks he's above all that."

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"In ‘Valentine's Day' Ashton was the classic romantic, and here he couldn't be more cynical; it's a 180 degree turn," says Rice. Revealing that the actor chose the role of Randy, Marshall remarks with a laugh, "Ashton's smart. He wanted to be the guy working indoors because he knew it would be freezing outside, because we were shooting winter in New York City."

"It doesn't start well," says Michele of the strained exchange between Elise and Randy. "Out of the thousands of people celebrating that night, Elise can't understand why she got stuck with this one. But as time passes they get to know each other a little. She's a singer and he's an artist so they discover that they have more similarities than differences. She's also curious about what happened to make him feel the way he does."

Fugate uses the plot point to suggest, "Sometimes the best thing that can happen is what you think is the worst thing. Sometimes it's about taking a breath and paying attention to what's happening right in front of you."

Leaving Randy and Elise to test that theory, the story moves to a man who has reason to feel even more trapped than they are. Confined to a hospital bed, Stan, played by Robert De Niro, is an acclaimed photojournalist who spectacularly cheated death in war zones around the world throughout his hard-driving career but is now coming to terms with an enemy he can't evade. Citing his conversations with De Niro during production, Marshall touches on the actor's consummate focus and attention to detail. "He said, ‘I want to get my eyes right for the part.' So he got contact lenses and we spent some time working on that aspect of the character. It was that precise."

Stan admits to having alienated everyone he's ever known. Now, refusing treatment, he is determined to hold on just long enough to watch the ball drop in Times Square one last time. Alone. But that's not something Nurse Aimee, played by Halle Berry, will allow. As the evening progresses, says Berry, "Stan reflects on his life and there's a point when he starts to hallucinate and believes Aimee is someone else, someone who was once close to him. It's a sweet and touching moment. Aimee is away from her own loved ones on New Year's Eve and doesn't expect it to be a joyous occasion, but she's going to make the best of it, and tonight that means caring for her patient. I think there's a part of her that understands what it's like to have regrets."

Another expert on the subject of regrets would be Ingrid, "a meek, unassuming soul who has walked the same small circuit of her neighborhood and worked the same thankless job without complaint her entire adult life," says Michelle Pfeiffer, who takes on the role of the easily overlooked assistant. "Afraid of her own shadow, she's carved out a simple, safe existence that won't throw her any surprises."

Even so, there are surprises in store for her. Ingrid has a heart-pounding brush with mortality and it turns her life around in a dramatic way. Reviewing a list of longunfulfilled New Year's resolutions, she finally summons the courage to quit her job, which is the first item on it, and embarks on a quest to cross off as many of the remaining items as possible before the clock strikes twelve.

But she's going to need some help.

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The filmmakers paired Ingrid with an unlikely yet perfect companion for her impromptu adventure: a confident young bike messenger named Paul, played by Zac Efron, with whom Pfeiffer previously co-starred in "Hairspray." If Paul provides the wheels and resourcefulness Ingrid needs to beat the clock, then she, in turn, can offer him the one thing he covets most on this night of revelry: tickets to the hottest party in town, the Ahern Records Masked Ball. Intended for her ungrateful boss, the tickets were the last thing Ingrid purposefully picked up on her way out the door.

Efron sees Paul as "an energetic, fun-loving guy who prides himself on being a wheeler-dealer, a guy who gets things done and nothing breaks his stride. When Ingrid strikes this deal with him, he knows he's definitely the man for the job. But along the way, the party becomes secondary to what turns out to be an amazing New Year's Eve, and he spends every minute of it helping her and making her happy. It's a real testament to the power of spreading joy."

"We wanted the juxtaposition of a character who's seen enough of life to have felt some missed opportunities, with someone who's younger and doesn't really think in terms of resolutions and regrets," offers Rice. "We thought, let's put these two together and watch them bring awareness to each other in a way that will change both their lives."

"It's sensational when you see this shy woman burst out of her shell and come alive. When you see that beautiful smile, it's just magical," says Marshall. "And Zac is a natural at being cool, which is the definition of Paul. But then you see other elements of his character come out as he gets to know her better."

If Ingrid's story is about not waiting to fulfill your dreams, that philosophy would surely get a thumbs-up from 15-year-old Hailey, a young woman on the edge of independence, with big plans to celebrate this New Year instead of sitting it out, as usual, with her mom and a bowl of popcorn. Abigail Breslin appears as the spirited teen, while her loving but overly cautious single mother, Kim, is played by Sarah Jessica Parker, without whom, Marshall simply states, "New York wouldn't be the same."

Hailey and her friends have secured a spot in Times Square to witness the countdown together. Then, if all goes well and a certain boy steps up - that would be Seth, played by Jake T. Austin - she might even get that first kiss she's been dreaming about.

But not if mom has anything to say about it.

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Says Parker, "It's probably been a great source of comfort for Kim to have her daughter and this routine in her life, but what we discover is that Hailey is no longer willing to play that role. She's at an age where she wants to be out experiencing life. For many parents that's a hard transition, and in particular for Kim, because she's alone and has been more reliant upon Hailey for company than she'll admit."

By restricting Hailey's budding social life, Kim keeps herself locked away as well, rather than face the daunting prospect of taking another chance at love and life, a fact that's not lost on her daughter. "Hailey isn't trying to be mean. She's just trying to claim her independence and let her mom know she's not a baby anymore, and at the same time remind her that there's a whole world out there that she's been missing," offers Breslin.

As Kim and Hailey confront their issues in Brooklyn, over at New York Memorial Hospital in Manhattan two couples are facing parenting issues of another kind. Tess and Griffin, played by Jessica Biel and Seth Meyers, are expecting their first child at the same time that Grace and James, played by Sarah Paulson and Til Schweiger, are due to add another to their growing family. Ordinarily, their chance meeting in the doctor's office earlier that day and then again, later, at the hospital, would be an opportunity to bond but instead the four become locked in a frantic battle over who will take home the hospital's $25,000 prize for giving birth to the first baby of the new year.

"Pregnancy is such a miraculous thing but we try to make it funny, too, showing what people will go through and how silly it can become when you lose sight of what really matters," says Marshall.

"They try all kinds of unusual things to induce labor," hints Biel. "Then, after a couple of false starts, Grace's water breaks the same time that Tess's does and they go into labor simultaneously. It's really close. You don't know who's going to win till the very last minute."

Even though the women are doing all the work, Schweiger points out, "It's the men who are competitive. Immediately after the two couples meet in their doctor's waiting room they're stumbling over each other in their race to be the first. It's the men who run from the elevator to the hospital reception desk while the women waddle behind."

"It was very exciting preparing for the birth of my fictional child, which is something most guys look forward to because real children are so much responsibility," quips SNL regular Meyers. "Your fictional children you can just leave on the set."

Meanwhile, as these stories unfold, one New Yorker is desperately trying to get back into the city for two very important appointments. Sam, played by a tuxedoed Josh Duhamel, has just attended his best friend's wedding in Connecticut and is driving back, pondering the direction of his life, when he collides with a road sign. Out of towing distance and with no body shops or rental agencies available on this special day, he's forced to take an unconventional route home that could turn out to be the course-correction he needs most.

The evening is especially meaningful as it's the first New Year's Eve his family is commemorating since losing Sam's father, and Sam is set to speak in his place at their annual gathering. As much as this weighs on his mind, he also can't help thinking about the fascinating woman he met by chance on this very night one year ago.

"She wouldn't give him her number. She said things were complicated for her and that if he was still interested next year they could meet at the same spot, same time," Duhamel reveals. "As much as he thinks it's crazy and tries to dismiss the idea, he wonders if she'll be there now… and if she'll be looking for him."