February 15, 2012

This Means War

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



This Means War

ROMANCE/COMEDY/ACTION:

United States, 2012

U.S. Release Date:

2012-02-17

Running Length:

1:38

MPAA Classification:

PG-13 (Sexual Content, Profanity, Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Til Schweiger, Chelsea Handler

Director:

McG

Screenplay:

Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg

Cinematography:

Russell Carpenter

Music:

Christophe Beck

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


Sometimes it's hard to recognize the importance of seemingly inconsequential element like "tone" when it comes to a romantic comedy. This Means War is a case study in what happens when the filmmakers mess this up. The movie is being marketed as an "action romantic comedy," but the "action" aspect is really just a little flavoring that shows up at the beginning and the end. It's jokey action - a would-be parody of over-the-top spy situations like those in Bond movies and the recent Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. But it's clumsily presented, generating neither excitement nor humor. At the heart of the movie is a romantic triangle between three impossibly good-looking people who are so uninteresting that we keep hoping the sleazy bad guy will show up and shoot them all.

Maybe I'm being unreasonable. Maybe I'm asking too much that a romantic comedy makes me feel something other than apathy. Maybe it's wrong of me to hope the most sympathetic character ends up with more than a throw-in consolation prize. I can't say whether the biggest problem with This Means War lies in the direction, the acting, or the screenplay, but all three elements are contributors. Romantic comedies, especially those that overdose on steroids, are supposed to uplift. This one is just depressing.

FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are elite spies with a history of getting the job done in the messiest way possible. After a failed attempt to capture international terrorist Heinrich (Til Schweiger) goes awry, leaving mayhem, destruction, and dead bodies all over, FDR and Tuck are assigned desk jobs. Heinrich, meanwhile, plots revenge, since one of those dead bodies belongs to his brother. Back at Spy Central, Tuck decides it's time for him to get back into the dating scene. He signs up with an on-line agency and, presto!, he has a date with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a thirtysomething woman so devoted to her job that she doesn't have room in her life for a pet. Tuck and Lauren have a great first date but, after it's over, she accidentally bumps into FDR (Chris Pine) and, after a rocky getting-to-know-you period, they too are going out. It doesn't take long for Tuck and FDR to discern they're after the same woman, although she's clueless that they're best friends. They make a pact not to let Lauren come between them but, of course, that's a deal they are unable to keep.

There's not a lot of chemistry between Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon and even less between Witherspoon and Chris Pine. There are moments when Pine and Witherspoon generate something close to sexual tension, but the Hardy/Witherspoon vibe is more of the "best friends" variety. The element that fractures This Means War, however, is the friendship between Pine and Hardy's characters. These two are supposed to be as close at two non-gay guys can be. Yet there's a chill that never thaws. A good romantic triangle where friends vie for the same woman demands that we believe in the bond between the men, and it doesn't happen here.

Director McG, who should sign a cross-promotional deal with the Golden Arches, is more concerned about the film's "coolness" factor than he is about character interaction. There's a clever little scene in which FDR and Tuck sneak around Lauren's apartment planting bugs while she prances and dances through the rooms. There are a lot of surveillance shots as Tuck spies on FDR's dates and vice versa. And the beginning and end are chock full of gunshots, explosions, car crashes, and dead bodies. McG's style here is more akin to the one he used for Charlie's Angels than We Are Marshall.

Reese Witherspoon comes to This Means War with her days as Hollywood's highest paid actress well behind her. She has plenty of charisma, but it's mostly wasted here. And her character has somehow been given the moral high ground, despite the fact she's dating two guys behind each other's back and intends to sleep with both to decide which one is the "keeper." The two male leads, both of whom have Star Trek connections, are intended to be an odd couple. Tom Hardy, despite having played some hard-asses in recent movies (Warrior, for example), is meek and low-key here - qualities that at times are ill-fitting. Meanwhile, Chris Pine appears to have tweaked his James T. Kirk persona by upping the asshole quotient. The standout is not one of the leads - it's Chelsea Handler, who play's Lauren's obligatory Best Friend. She has all the best lines and it's immediately apparent that This Means War would have been a lot better if her role had been enhanced.

Some will undoubtedly be satisfied by the way things are resolved. I found the wrap-up to be semisweet at best, although perhaps not as unpalatable as if I had been more invested in the characters and their relationships. The "consolation prize" I mentioned earlier is more of an insult than a good way to provide closure and, although it doesn't come completely out of left field, it has been shoehorned in for maximum happy ending impact.

This Means War is not funny enough to succeed as a comedy. It's not emotionally deft enough to succeed as a romance. And it's not exciting enough to succeed as an action film. It's a high-energy, fast-paced explosion of moments that can be edited together to make a compelling trailer. With a nod to McG's background, it looks and feels like a 98-minute music video without the music - all splash and little heart. A lot of romantic comedies fail because they're too saccharine. This Means War could have used a little more of that.

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