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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It almost makes you wanna trip over an ottoman, just for the hell of it.
Today marks fifty years since the premiere of The Dick Van Dyke Show, one of the most iconic and influential sitcoms in television history. The Dick Van Dyke Show, starred (you probably don’t need us to tell you) Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, a family man and comedy writer for a New York City-based variety TV show. TDVDS seems to have all the facets of your standard workplace comedy—tyrannical boss, wisecracking coworkers, put-upon errand boy -- but there’s something that differentiates this series from others of its type: it was the first of its kind.
In fact, TDVDS was a pioneer not just as a workplace comedy (seriously—name one that came before it), but also in its portrayal of woman and minorities. One of the main characters, Sally Rogers, was a brash, single woman and professional comedy writer. TDVDS was nearly unprecedented in its portrayal of a black family as economic and societal equals to the Petries. And finally, it was one of the first shows to include a number of Jewish characters.
But in addition to these important sociopolitical steps, it was also the foundation for several types of comedic characters that have stood the test of time. We may not realize this, but characters from our favorite sitcoms today—workplace, family, all genres—draw inspiration from the cast of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Liz Lemon (Tina Fey on 30 Rock)
Liz Lemon is the hapless head writer of TGS with Tracy Jordan, a sketch comedy show on NBC. Since the series' start, Liz is illustrated as a career woman who has let her work addiction, and (often ironically counterproductive) measures to advance the depiction of women on television, stand in the way of her personal life. However, Liz's mission is to "have it all." She wants to meet a good man and start a family, but is in no way willing to give up her demanding job. Additionally, the scattered attempts Liz does make at finding love are always ill-fated, either by her own abrasive personality or by her attraction to terrible men.
Each and every one of these characteristics can be traced back to Rose Marie's character, Sally Rogers, on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Sally's lack of apparent femininity led her to often be jokingly referred to as "one of the guys" by coworkers Rob and Buddy. She was a markedly successful professional writer, but she often lamented her inability to find a husband. The few men that Sally was seen with over the course of the series never offered much promise: her on-off love interest Herman Glimscher was immature (much like Liz's recurring boyfriend, and the best character in the history of television, Dennis Duffy). Furthermore, Sally often drove men away due to her unbridled personality and sense of humor.
Tom Haverford (
Aziz Ansari on Parks and Recreation)
While he was employed at the Parks Department of Pawnee, Indiana, Tom Haverford was rarely seen contributing to anything but the office vibe. Tom is an incurable wiseass. At every waking opportunity, he goofs off and makes fun of his coworkers (specifically Jerry...and Leslie...and Ben...and Jerry). There have been many quick-witted slackers over the years, but Tom is one we are pleased to have with us today. And, of course, we might not have Tom if we never had Morey Amsterdam's character, Buddy Sorrell, on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
Although Buddy's work ethic was slightly more impressive than Tom's (after all, he was a comedy writer, so technically, making fun of the producer was part of the job...right?), he was not exactly a model employee. Buddy never let an opportunity to snark at producer Mel Cooley slip by, usually vying for the obvious target of his baldness. Like Tom, Buddy was shown to be a decent guy underneath his attitude -- still a jackass, but a decent jackass.
Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash on Community)
Every fan of Community (that I know) cheers whenever Greendale Community College's Dean Craig Pelton struts into the library to deliver what will inevitably be unappreciated, irrelevant, and annoying news to the study group. The dean is the biggest victim of the eightsome's constant barrage of mockery due to his overzealous embrace of everything that he has to say. Somehow, despite his laughable appearance and incredibly peculiar personality, Dean Pelton takes himself incredibly seriously, and takes great offense to anyone who insults him or his job.
In this case, there are as many physical similarities between Pelton and Richard Deacon's Dick Van Dyke character Mel Cooley as there are personal. The bald, bespectacled Mel cherished his position of authoirty over the fun-loving gang of writers. However, his authority was strictly in title; he rarely commanded any respect from the trio, especially Buddy. Mel was the victim of endless abuse from the wisecracking comedians. Still, he carried out his position with great pride, much like Dean Pelton does his. Of course, Mel was never shown to be a pansexual deviant...maybe Community got that from Leave it to Beaver.
Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak on The Office)
Ah, the horrible boss. Beyond every other staple in workplace comedy has this one pervaded. Now, one might find it curious that, in use of The Office, we wouldn't highlight the iconic Michael Scott as the 'bad boss.' The thing is, Michael, while bumbling, insecure, immature, and ill-equipped for his position, was actually a pretty decent guy...underneath it all, anyway. Ryan Howard, however, during his reign as Michael's superior at Dunder Mifflin Corporate, was very much the opposite. He embodied perfectly the 'evil boss.' He was seflish, egotistical, insensitive, and obsessed with own success over others' and the company's. He was not above belittling, berating or manipulating his employees if it meant getting what he wanted.
Over the years, there have been many, many terrible bosses. But they all date back to creator Carl Reiner's character Alan Brady, star of the in-universe Alan Brady Show for which Rob, Sally and Buddy were writers. Alan originated as a faceless character, much like the George Steinbrenner character we saw in Seinfeld. Once the show made a transition into depicting Brady as a full-fledged character, he got meaner, ruder, more narcissitic and less compassionate -- especially to his own brother-in-law, Mel.
Phil and Claire Dunphy (Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen on Modern Family)
Phil and Claire are a classic formula. Goofy husband, high-strung wife. Both good-hearted and devoted to one another. Unlike some other series of recent past, it is easy to see why Phil and Claire love each other. Their differences are not played to extremes in the interests of laughable chaos. We actually see plenty of their similarities, as well. While Phil's bumbling nature often causes Claire grief, and Claire's flusterability (just go with it) might upset Phil, we never doubt that they're right for each other.
And this is something we definitely find in Rob and Laura Petrie, played by Dick Van Dyke himself and the great Mary Tyler Moore. They started it all: the great married couple. Not perfect to the point of inhuman like the Cleavers. Not flawed to the point of "Well, why are they even married?" like the Barrones. Totally real. Totally lovable. Totally memorable. Like the show itself, a true legacy.
As with seemingly every other tentpole release to hit the multiplex this summer the action thriller Cowboys & Aliens is based on a comic book – albeit a lesser-known one. It’s directed by Jon Favreau whose previous comic-book adaptations Iron Man and Iron Man 2 proved how much better those films can be when they’re grounded in character. Unfortunately his latest effort is grounded not in character but a hook an alt-history scenario best expressed in the language of the average twelve-year-old: “Like wouldn’t it be awesome if like a bunch of 1870s cowboys had to fight a bunch of crazy aliens with exoskeletons and spaceships and super-advanced weapons?”
Like perhaps. The hook was compelling enough to get someone to pony up a reported $160 million to find out and the result is a film in which the western and science-fiction genres don’t so much blend as violently collide. After the wreckage is cleared both emerge worse for wear.
Daniel Craig stars as Jake Lonergan a stranger who awakens in the New Mexico Territory with a case of amnesia a wound in his side and a strange contraption strapped to his wrist. After dispatching a trio of bandits with Bourne-like efficiency he rides to the nearby town of Absolution where he stumbles on what appears to be an elaborate Western Iconography exhibit presented by the local historical preservation society. There’s the well-meaning town Sheriff Taggart (Keith Carradine) struggling to enforce order amidst lawlessness; the greedy rancher Colonel Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) who really runs things; his debaucherous cowardly son Percy (Paul Dano); the timid saloonkeeper Doc (Sam Rockwell) who’s going to stand up for himself one of these days; the humble preacher Meacham (Clancy Brown) dispensing homespun spiritual advice; et al.
Jake of course has his own part to play – the fugitive train-robber – as we discover when his face shows up on a wanted poster and a sneering Dolarhyde fingers him for the theft of his gold. The only character who doesn’t quite conform to type is Ella (Olivia Wilde) who as neither a prostitute nor some man’s wife – the traditional female occupations in westerns – immediately arouses suspicion.
Jake is arrested and ordered to stand trial in Federal court but before he can be shipped off a squadron of alien planes appears in the sky besieging Absolution and making off with several of its terrified citizenry. In the course of the melee Jake’s wrist contraption wherever it came from reveals itself to be quite useful in defense against the alien invaders. Thrown by circumstances into an uneasy alliance with Dolarhyde he helps organize a posse to counter the otherworldly threat – and bring back the abductees if possible.
Cowboys & Aliens has many of the ingredients of a solid summer blockbuster but none in sufficient amounts to rate in a summer season crowded with bigger-budget (and better-crafted) spectacle. For a film with five credited screenwriters Cowboys & Aliens’ script is sorely lacking for verve or imagination. And what happened to the Favreau of Iron Man? The playful cheekiness that made those films so much fun is all but absent in this film which takes itself much more seriously than any film called Cowboys & Aliens has a right to. Dude you’ve got men on horses with six-shooters battling laser-powered alien crab people. Lighten up.
Craig certainly looks the part of the western anti-hero – his only rival in the area of rugged handsomeness is Viggo Mortensen – but his character is reduced to little more than an angry glare. And Wilde the poor girl is burdened with loads of clunky exposition. The two show promising glimpses of a romantic spark but their relationship remains woefully underdeveloped. Faring far better is Ford who gets not only the bulk of the film’s choicest lines but also its only touching subplot in which his character’s adopted Indian son played by Adam Beach quietly coaxes the humanity out of the grizzled old man.