In This Means War – a stylish action/rom-com hybrid from director McG – Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Chris Pine (Star Trek) star as CIA operatives whose close friendship is strained by the fires of romantic rivalry. Best pals FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are equally accomplished at the spy game but their fortunes diverge dramatically in the dating realm: FDR (so nicknamed for his obvious resemblance to our 32nd president) is a smooth-talking player with an endless string of conquests while Tuck is a straight-laced introvert whose love life has stalled since his divorce. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) a pretty plucky consumer-products evaluator who piques both their interests in separate unrelated encounters. Tuck meets her via an online-dating site FDR at a video-rental store. (That Lauren is tech-savvy enough to date online but still rents movies in video stores is either a testament to her fascinating mix of contradictions or more likely an example of lazy screenwriting.)
When Tuck and FDR realize they’re pursuing the same girl it sparks their respective competitive natures and they decide to make a friendly game of it. But what begins as a good-natured rivalry swiftly devolves into romantic bloodsport with both men using the vast array of espionage tools at their disposal – from digital surveillance to poison darts – to gain an edge in the battle for Lauren’s affections. If her constitutional rights happen to be violated repeatedly in the process then so be it.
Lauren for her part remains oblivious to the clandestine machinations of her dueling suitors and happily basks in the sudden attention from two gorgeous men. Herein we find the Reese Witherspoon Dilemma: While certainly desirable Lauren is far from the irresistible Helen of Troy type that would inspire the likes of Tuck and FDR to risk their friendship their careers and potential incarceration for. At several points in This Means War I found myself wondering if there were no other peppy blondes in Los Angeles (where the film is primarily set) for these men to pursue. Then again this is a film that wishes us to believe that Tom Hardy would have trouble finding a date so perhaps plausibility is not its strong point.
When Lauren needs advice she looks to her boozy foul-mouthed best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler). Essentially an extension of Handler’s talk-show persona – an acquired taste if there ever was one – Trish’s dialogue consists almost exclusively of filthy one-liners delivered in rapid-fire succession. Handler does have some choice lines – indeed they’re practically the centerpiece of This Means War’s ad campaign – but the film derives the bulk of its humor from the outrageous lengths Tuck and FDR go to sabotage each others’ efforts a raucous game of spy-versus-spy that carries the film long after Handler’s shtick has grown stale.
Business occasionally intrudes upon matters in the guise of Heinrich (Til Schweiger) a Teutonic arms dealer bent on revenge for the death of his brother. The subplot is largely an afterthought existing primarily as a means to provide third-act fireworks – and to allow McGenius an outlet for his ADD-inspired aesthetic proclivities. The film’s action scenes are edited in such a manic quick-cut fashion that they become almost laughably incoherent. In fairness to McG he does stage a rather marvelous sequence in the middle of the film in which Tuck and FDR surreptitiously skulk about Lauren's apartment unaware of each other's presence carefully avoiding detection by Lauren who grooves absentmindedly to Montel Jordan's "This Is How We Do It." The whole scene unfolds in one continuous take – or is at least craftily constructed to appear as such – captured by one very agile steadicam operator.
Whatever his flaws as a director McG is at least smart enough to know how much a witty script and appealing leads can compensate for a film’s structural and logical deficiencies. He proved as much with Charlie’s Angels a film that enjoys a permanent spot on many a critic’s Guilty Pleasures list and does so again with This Means War. The film coasts on the chemistry of its three co-stars and only runs into trouble when the time comes to resolve its romantic competition which by the end has driven its male protagonists to engage in all manner of underhanded and duplicitous activities. This Means War being a commercial film – and likely an expensive one at that – Witherspoon's heroine is mandated to make a choice and McG all but sidesteps the whole thorny matter of Tuck and FDR’s unwavering dishonesty not to mention their craven disregard for her privacy. (They regularly eavesdrop on her activities.) For all their obvious charms the truth is that neither deserves Lauren – or anything other than a lengthy jail sentence for that matter.
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Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
Movie audiences weren't afraid of a little blood and gore this weekend; on the contrary, they were compelled to find out who won the ultimate monster battle.
Freddy vs. Jason, which pits A Nightmare of Elm Street's steely-fingered Freddy against Friday the 13th's machete-wielding Jason, simply slaughtered the box office competition, debuting at No. 1 with a head-splittin' $36.4 million* and shoving last week's headliner, the police-drama S.W.A.T., down to second place with $18.6 million.
Combining the two horror franchises turned out to be a brilliant idea, generating more opening box office dollars than either individual series has seen lately. The last Friday the 13th installment, Jason X, debuted in 2002 at $6.6 million, while the last Elm Street chapter, Wes Craven's New Nightmare, opened in 1994 at $6.6 million as well.
"[Freddy vs. Jason] worked because it's a brand new series. It's an original movie with name recognition," Russell Schwartz, head of domestic marketing for New Line Cinema told The Associated Press. "We took it seriously and didn't turn it into Scary Movie. Not that it doesn't have humor, but we didn't want to go too campy."
Oscar-winning Kevin Costner's western saga Open Range premiered at No. 3 with a respectable $14.1 million, making it the second best opener of Costner's last five movies. Only the romantic Message in a Bottle topped Range's figure when it opened in 1999 at $16.7 million. Other recent Costner vehicles haven't fared as well: Dragonfly took $10.2 million, 3,000 Miles to Graceland $7.1 million, Thirteen Days $46,688 and For Love of the Game $13 million.
The body-switching comedy Freaky Friday took fourth place with $13.1 million, while the girl-powered Uptown Girls debuted in the fifth spot with $11.2 million. Other newcomers this week included the skateboarding laffer Grind, which premiered with a measly $2.6 million, and the underground comic book indie American Splendor, which debuted in limited release and took in $156,000.
Overall, box office grosses were up, up, up this weekend, nearly 4 percent from last weekend and a whopping 34 percent from the same weekend last year.
THE TOP TEN
New Line Cinema's R-rated horror fest Freddy vs. Jason spooked its way to the top spot with an ESTIMATED $36.4 million in 3,014 theaters. Its $12,085 per theater average was the highest of any movie playing wide this week.
Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees leaves the cozy confines of Camp Crystal Lake for Elm Street, where he meets his most dangerous adversary yet--A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger. But this town only has room for one slasher.
Directed by Ronny Yu, it stars Robert Englund and Ken Kirzinger.
Sony Pictures' PG-13-rated S.W.A.T. dropped from the top spot to No. 2 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $18.6 million (-50%) in 3,220 theaters (+18 theaters; $5,776 per theater). The film, revolving around a newly trained S.W.A.T. team, has garnered $70 million so far.
Directed by Clark Johnson, it stars Colin Farrell, Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J and Michelle Rodriguez.
Buena Vista's R-rated Open Range moseyed into third place in its opening weekend with an ESTIMATED $14.1 million in 2,075 theaters, taking in an average of $6,795 per theater.
In the film, a posse of "freegrazers"--rogue cowboys who drive their own cattle--runs into trouble in prairie town run by a kingpin rancher.
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, it also stars Robert Duvall, Annette Bening, Diego Luna and Michael Gambon.
Buena Vista's PG-rated Freaky Friday fell a couple of spots to No. 4 in its second week with an ESTIMATED $13.1 million (-41%) in 2,979 theaters (+25 theaters; $4,397 per theater). Its cume is $57.9 million.
Directed by Mark Waters, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohan, Chad Michael Murray and Mark Harmon.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
MGM's PG-13-rated Uptown Girls giggled all the way to No. 5 in its premiere weekend with an ESTIMATED $11.2 million in 2,495 theaters ($4,489 per theater).
In this riches-to-rags tale, the daughter of a late rock-and-roll star gets a rude awakening when all her money is embezzled and she has to take a job as the nanny to a very uptight 8-year-old girl.
Directed by Boaz Yakin, it stars Brittany Murphy, Dakota Fanning, Donald Faison, Marley Shelton and Heather Locklear.
Buena Vista Pictures' PG-13-rated fantasy actioner Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl collected more booty, slipping to sixth place in its sixth week of release with an ESTIMATED $8.5 million (-35%) at 2,710 theaters (-460 theaters; $3,137 per theater). Its cume is approximately $247.9 million.
Directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, it stars Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley.
Universal Picture's R-rated comedy American Wedding plummeted four spots to seventh in its third week with an ESTIMATED $8.16 million (-47%) at 2,985 theaters (-210 theaters; $2,735 per theater). Its cume is $80.6 million.
Directed by Jesse Dylan, it stars Jason Biggs, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Thomas Ian Nicholas.
Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated drama Seabiscuit fell three notches to No. 8 in its fourth week, taking in an ESTIMATED $8.12 million (-32%) in 2,462 theaters (+34 theaters; $3,300 per theater). Its cume is approximately $83 million.
Directed by Gary Ross, it stars Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges and Chris Cooper as three down-and-out men who find fame and fortune in an equally down-and-out racehorse.
Dimension Films' PG-rated Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over dropped three spots to No. 9 in its fourth week with an ESTIMATED $5.2 million (-46%) in 3,003 theaters (-385 theaters; $1,745 per theater). Its cume is approximately $96.8 million.
Written and directed by Robert Rodriguez, it stars Alexa Vega, Daryl Sabara, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek and Ricardo Montalban.
Sony Picture's R-rated buddy actioner Bad Boys II continued to move down the list to take 10th place in its fifth week with an ESTIMATED $3.2 million (-47%) at 1,785 theaters (-664 theaters; $1,793 per theater). Its cume is approximately $128.8 million.
Directed by Michael Bay, it stars Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Jordi Molla, Gabrielle Union and Peter Stormare.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated Grind opened with an ESTIMATED $2.6 million in 2,253 theaters ($1,161 per theater).
Four free-wheelin', skateboarding buddies head cross-country to try to get into a pro-skateboarding demo tour.
Directed by Casey La Scala, it stars Mike Vogel, Adam Brody, Vince Vieluf, Joey Kern and Jennifer Morrison.
Fine Line's R-rated American Splendor debuted in limited release with an ESTIMATED $156,000 in 6 theaters ($26,000 per theater).
In this true story, hospital administrative clerk Harvey Pekar goes from rags to (relative) riches with his homegrown autobiographical comic book series, American Splendor.
Directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman, it stars Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis and Harvey Pekar.
The Top 12 films this weekend grossed an ESTIMATED $132 million, up 33.2 percent from last year's take of $99.1 million. The Top 12 films were also up 3.6 percent from last weekend when they grossed $127.4 million.
Last year's top three included: Sony's PG-13-rated actioner xXx, which stayed in first place its second week in a row with $22.1 million in 3,388 theaters ($6,526 per theater average); Buena Vista's PG-13 rated sci-fi thriller Signs, which held on to second place for two consecutive weeks with $19.3 million at 3,344 theaters ($5,790 per theater average); and Universal Pictures' PG-13-rated Blue Crush which opened in third with $14.1 million in 3,002 theaters ($4,720 per theater).