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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Death is supposed to bring a family closer together. But the passing of Daniel and Robert’s father is nothing more than an excuse for these two distinctly different brothers to renew their sibling rivalry. The painfully tedious Daniel (Matthew Macfadyen) is plagued with doubts about his ability to write a fitting eulogy to his father. It doesn’t help that everyone wonders aloud within earshot why his younger brother Robert (Rupert Graves)—a critically acclaimed novelist and renowned ladies man now living in New York—is penning the eulogy. Daniel’s also concerned whether Robert whom he assumes has dollars coming out of his ears will renege on his promise to split the cost of funeral. Daniel needs the money for a down payment on a new house; Robert can’t spare the cash because his living beyond his means has finally caught up with him. Then there’s their mother Sandra (Jane Asher) who takes Daniel for granted while lavishing all of her affections on Robert. And while Robert immediately becomes the center of attention Daniel finds himself dealing with a situation that distracts him from the task of writing his father’s eulogy. His father had a secret double life which a mysterious funeral crasher (Peter Dinklage) threatens to expose if he’s not paid handsomely to keep quiet. And this blackmail attempt quickly leads to the apparent death at the funeral. Too bad director Frank Oz finds himself distracted tying up many other loose ends—including one woman’s efforts to watch over her drip of a fiancé who inadvertently ingested LSD while fending off the advances of her oily ex-boyfriend—to fully exploit the comic potential of Dinklage’s extortion plan. Guess dealing with so many big names—and even bigger egos—on The Stepford Wives took its toll on Frank Oz. How else to explain Death at a Funeral’s relatively star-free ensemble cast? Unfortunately Oz makes a huge blunder by placing the funeral arrangements on the broad shoulders of Pride & Prejudice’s Matthew Macfadyen. After trying in vain to make us forget Colin Firth’ Mr. Darcy Macfadyen treats Death at a Funeral as though it’s based on another Jane Austen literary classic. Yes Daniel’s as stiff as his father’s corpse but the terribly serious Macfadyen does nothing to make him likeable or amusing. Rupert Graves is somewhat charismatic as the prodigal son but he leaves with you the impression that his handsome rogue was written with Hugh Grant in mind. Peter Dinklage once again cashes in on The Station Agent with a performance hammier than the one he gives in Underdog. He’s a good actor but he obviously needs a director who can rein him in. Serenity’s Alan Tudyk—sporting a passable English accent—also shows no restraint. But thank heavens for that. His over-the-top theatrics—which includes prancing around on a roof dressed in just his birthday suit—generates most of the few laughs to be found in Death at a Funeral. The others come from veteran British actor Peter Vaughn who’s delightfully cranky as Daniel and Robert’s foulmouthed uncle. The ladies—especially Macfadyen’s real-life wife Keeley Hawes—are required do nothing more than stand by their men. Or in Daisy Donovan’s case stand in front of a butt-naked Tudyk. Are Frank Oz’s best years behind him? Death at a Funeral and The Stepford Wives suggest the possibility. At least The Stepford Wives had some pep to it but Funeral is utterly lifeless. One of the problems is Dean Craig’s unfocused script which incorporates an overwhelming number of eccentric characters who find themselves in one predicament after another. But you can still detect a wicked streak in Craig’s script. Too bad it’s blunted by Frank Oz’s surprisingly reserved and gloomy approach to the proceedings at hand. The action is almost completely confined to one home ensuring that Funeral feels about as stagy as one of those groan-inducing British farces by West End playwright Ray Cooney. Funeral needs a director who understands and appreciates the absurdity of the situation and possesses the ability to keep his actors on a tight leash rather than letting them spin completely out of control. Once upon a time Frank Oz was such a director. But now Frank Oz doesn’t seem to know what he wants. Worse things never get as deliciously nasty as they could be--and that’s the kiss of death for a comedy that aspires to be blacker than the attire worn by the bereaved. Let’s hope the Muppet man-turned-director has another Bowfinger or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels left in him.