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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Chirpy blonde Carolyn McDuffy (Christina Ricci) has the perfect life. A Southern California State University senior from a wealthy family Carolyn's a devoted sister of Alpha Omega Pi and has the school's gorgeous top-ranked tennis star for a boyfriend. School's just started and her sorority's goal is to defeat archrivals the Tri-Omegas as Sorority of the Year. To that end Carolyn and her sisters hope to win over the Greek Council by showing their diversity and put on their best politically correct faces welcoming "the best" minority rushees and helping a charity for mentally handicapped male athletes. But Carolyn more than balks when it comes time to coach the athletes for the Challenged Games--she's scared stiff by her wheelchair-bound redheaded charge Pumpkin Romanoff (Hank Harris) whose puzzled stare crippled body and fumbling throws of the discus send her almost into a panic. It isn't long though before she gets to know the gentle and simplistically honest Pumpkin whose kind nature touches her heart and opens her eyes to a beauty that comes from inside. Before long she's introducing Pumpkin to her friends taking him on trips to the beach even setting him up on a date with her overweight highly insulted friend. When she realizes that what she feels for him to her own shock and the horror of everyone she knows is more love than friendship all hell breaks loose. Boyfriend Kent is devastated she's excommunicated from her sorority Pumpkin's overprotective mother wants to see her dead and she escapes...to Long Beach.
Ricci is so good in darkly comedic performances that it's no wonder she went from merely producing this movie to taking the starring role. She's right on with her tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a bubble-headed sorority chick who sees life through rose-colored glasses until her life falls to pieces and she delivers some great lines to boot. The problem with this movie isn't her acting it's the unevenness of the script that has her--and everyone else--doing things that don't quite ring true (like how could she drive off and forget Pumpkin was sitting helpless on the beach leaving him for hours?) but Ricci's able to compensate for that somewhat. Unfortunately the nature of Harris' character keeps him from saying much and other than by some great facial expressions we really don't get a good sense of who he is or what captivates Carolyn so. Carolyn's fellow sorority sisters (Dominique Swain Marisa Coughlan) are a hoot and Sam Ball as Kent is quite a find. Brenda Blethyn also appears as Pumpkin's overprotective mom.
This movie doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Black comedy with a message? Probably but it's so uneven you don't quite know what the message is. It seems like first-time directors Adam Larson Broder and Tony Abrams (who also co-wrote) were trying to give their film too many layers when it would've been best to stick to stereotypes while still being funny. Carolyn's sorority is already diverse--that they thought it would be impressive to get more minority rushees doesn't make as much sense as it would have had they all been blonde like their competition. The handicapped athletes don't look handicapped but rather like actors pretending to be handicapped. Film starts out mildly funny until midway through when there's a roughly 35-minute chunk of completely unfunny material and then a bizarre tone shift takes place that makes it seem almost as though the writers changed their minds about who these people are halfway throught the script. Pumpkin's mom who seemed fine for the first half is suddenly a heavy drinker who wants Pumpkin all to herself. (If she's so controlling why isn't she concerned that Carolyn is not only hours late bringing him home from the beach but then just leaves him sitting in the driveway without making sure he gets inside?) Kent who starts out more compassionate and understanding than Carolyn abruptly turns into a jerk who gets taught an incongrously horrible lesson that seems undeserved given his nice-guy ways throughout most of the film. And there's the matter of why they have Christina Ricci looking like a refugee from the sorority in Animal House while everyone else in the movie looks up to date. Overall it's just a weird flick.