Illustration by Spencer Olson

Has Anyone Ever Said ‘No’ to Garry Marshall?

The few successes (and many failures) of Hollywood’s most beloved director

Garry Marshall is addicted to work. His first feature as a director, Young Doctors in Love, was released in 1982, when he was 48. More than three decades later, he’s ready to release Mother’s Day — the third entry in a line of ensemble rom-coms about questionably significant holidays with titles that are as descriptive as they are vague. Like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve before it, Mother’s Day features a large cast of A-listers and no-names and will probably be obliterated by critics for its clunky dialogue, obvious plot twists and terrible wigs. But even the most scathing review from the ghost of Pauline Kael would fail to chip away at Marshall’s long-hardened armor; he will keep making movies, and by God, America’s going to keep seeing them.

Marshall was already well-established in Hollywood when he entered the world of feature films. He was, after all, the same Garry Marshall who created Happy Days, which ran for 11 seasons, and the spinoff Laverne & Shirley (starring his sister Penny), which ran for eight. But all that success didn’t immediately translate to film. Roger Ebert called Young Doctors In Love “comedy [gone] very wrong.” In a more forgiving review, Janet Maslin added that Marshall never strays too far from “familiar material.” But no matter! He would keep going, Maslin’s backhanded compliment becoming a sort of mantra.

His second directorial effort, 1984’s The Flamingo Kid, was much better received, becoming the year’s 43rd-highest-grossing movie. (For context, Sixteen Candles was number 44.) Now that he had something of a hit on his hands, Marshall decided to fully abandon television for the movies. Over the next three years he directed the Tom Hanks/Jackie Gleason vehicle Nothing In Common as well as Overboard (my personal favorite), starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. In 1988, he made the world ugly-cry with Beaches, taking the disconnect between his critical and commercial success to the extreme: Beaches was the worst-reviewed movie he’d ever made, but it also made the most money. The man was onto something.

When his movies hit, they hit hard. And when they bombed, they could have leveled cities. Marshall’s biggest hits of the ’90s, Pretty Woman and Runaway Bride, had the same leads — Julia Roberts and Richard Gere — and the same massive success. But those ill-conceived losers in between — the ones without Julia Roberts? You probably can’t name one. And if you can, you’ll likely have trouble saying it aloud without adding, “Yikes.” There was Exit to Eden, a BDSM comedy starring Rosie O’Donnell and Dan Akroyd that’s as bad as it sounds; The Other Sister, the rom-com about mentally challenged individuals starring Juliette Lewis and Giovanni Ribisi that’s even worse than it sounds; and Dear God, the Greg Kinnear comedy about people mailing letters to God that is more or less as meh as it sounds. But the trick is this: You’re allowed to release garbage after directing what was, in 1990, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Pretty Woman isn’t just a one-time Get Out of Jail Free card; it’s the same one he’s been able to use again and again.

By the 2000s, Marshall was riding high. After 2001’s Anne Hathaway/Julie Andrews hit The Princess Diaries, he directed the film’s sequel, The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement. Raising Helen, a wholly inoffensive dramedy about a young woman who suddenly becomes the guardian of her dead sister’s children, came that same year. No matter the reception — here was Marshall, at 70 years old, trying new things. But more family-oriented fare suited him, and he had the box office returns to prove it. By 2007’s failed-Lindsay Lohan-comeback-slash-unmitigated disaster Georgia Rule, Marshall’s Get Out of Jail Free card was plenty worn, and included several asterisks. Underneath Pretty Woman are listed the names of his other hits — in all caps — almost daring movie studios to tell him no. If you shun Garry for a misguided dramedy about sexual abuse and family secrets, well, you might not get another Princess Diaries.

Only, we haven’t. Marshall’s newest obsession is the ensemble comedy, beginning with 2010’s Valentine’s Day, a Love Actually wannabe that used its A-list cast to distract viewers from embarrassing dialogue and a series of interconnected plot lines that play as though they were written by an Amazon Echo.

For better or worse, Marshall was once again doing something new. He continued this format with 2011’s New Year’s Eve — a movie I saw at midnight and can hardly remember, apart from a subplot involving Lea Michele in an elevator. His latest entry in the unofficial series, Mother’s Day, comes out this week and looks to be similarly forgettable. But these things aren’t meant to be remembered, are they? They’re meant to be cash grabs—easy money sucked out of audiences who just want to get out of the house for a couple hours. Perhaps it’s more important that they allow Marshall himself to get out of the house. The man just wants to work! And, at 81, the grueling hours of moviemaking must take a toll. So he calls up his friends, sends over the scripts and asks for few minutes of their time.

“Just swing by, Julia!” he screams into the phone. “Wear a wig. Any wig. I’ll only need you a few days.”

“Of course,” they all say. Because it’s Garry.

Bobby Finger is a writer at Jezebel and co-host of Who? Weekly, the podcast.