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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Top Story: Sizemore Didn't Take the Witness Stand
After Tom Sizemore declined to testify in his abuse trial, his lawyers concluded their case Monday by showing a videotape shot by Heidi Fleiss, Sizemore's former fiancé, who has claimed the actor beat her during their tumultuous relationship and has since threatened her and her family's life. The Associated Press reports the tape was shot in a hotel room where Fleiss and Sizemore were staying during a publicity tour for Black Hawk Down. On it, she declares her love for Sizemore. "I can't wait for Tom to get home to tell him how good he was, how handsome he is, how happy he makes me," she reportedly said on the tape. The defense suggests this contradicts her claim that on the same day Sizemore came to the hotel room and beat her so badly that both of them missed the premiere of the movie. AP reports Sizemore cried at the defense table while the tape was playing. The actor could face up to 13 years in prison if convicted of all the charges, which include making about 100 harassing phone calls to Fleiss, vandalism, threatening to inflict injury to a person or property and corporal injury resulting in a traumatic condition.
More on the Ben & Jen Saga
Promoting the new Project Greenlight film The Battle of Shaker Heights, Ben Affleck skirted reporters' questions about his recent visit to a Vancouver strip club in July, Reuters reports. "You can tell your news editors that you are too big for that kind of stuff, that you are better than that, that you rise above it," Affleck joked at the press conference. The affable actor also commented on his upcoming film Jersey Girl, in which his lady love Jennifer Lopez also makes an appearance. "I think Jersey Girl is a really good movie," he said. "Jen is only in it for about 10 minutes, so it's not really like a 'me-and-Jen' movie. In fact, probably after the towering success of Gigli, I suspect Miramax will find a way to sell it as other than a 'me-and-Jen' movie."
Al Franken Sued by Fox Over Slogan
Saturday Night Live writer and political humorist Al Franken is being sued by Fox News to stop using the phrase "fair and balanced" in the title of his new book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, AP reports. Fox filed the suit Monday, claiming they registered "Fair & Balanced" as a trademark in 1995. Franken's "intent is clear--to exploit Fox News' trademark, confuse the public as to the origins of the book and, accordingly, boost sales of the book," AP reports the suit said.
P. Diddy Targeted in Lawsuit
Two men have filed suit against rap mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs for $25 million each, claiming they were attacked by a security team at Combs' recording studio, AP reports. Thomas Guest and Damon Jackson filed their suits Monday, alleging that they were assaulted in August 2002 at the Daddy's House studio in New York, where the two men were trying to visit Combs, a friend of Guest. Combs' spokeswoman, Susan Makarichev, told AP the lawsuits were "totally baseless" and "the allegations are ridiculous."
Robert Evans's Wife Files for Divorce
Former model Leslie Ann Woodward filed for divorce Monday from legendary film producer Robert Evans, citing "irreconcilable differences," Reuters reports. The 34-year-old Woodward married the 73-year-old Evans last November, his sixth marriage, and has been separated from him since June. The couple has no children.
Bertrand Cantat Probed in Beating Death of Girlfriend
Bertrand Cantat, the lead singer of the popular French rock band Noir Desir, is close to being charged in the beating death of his girlfriend, Marie Trintignant, AP reports. The French actress was found in a coma in July in a hotel in Lithuania, where she was filming a movie, after she and Cantat reportedly had an argument. AP reports a French judge will travel to the Baltic nation Monday, when Cantat, who has been detained in the country, will be notified that he is under investigation for "fatal blows leading unintentionally to death," officials told AP on condition of anonymity. In France, being placed under investigation is one step short of charges, AP reports. Cantat has maintained the death was an accident.
Coppola Searching for Utopian City
Location scouting for his next film, director Francis Ford Coppola visited the sleepy town of Curitiba, Brazil, as a possible place to shoot Megalopolis, his first film in six years, Reuters reports. The story follows a visionary architect who sets out to design a utopian city. "[Curitiba] is amazing, especially the public transportation," Coppola told Reuters, whose quest for an urban paradise will also take him to cities in India, China, the Netherlands and the United States.
Rap Industry Producer Cuts Deal With Prosecutors
Rap industry player Jon Ragin, who co-produced a recent film marketed by the record label Murder Inc., has quietly cut a plea deal with authorities investigating alleged ties between the Murder Inc. music label and New York City's violent drug trade, AP reports. Ragin, a convicted drug dealer, was arrested in January during raids at various New York locations, including the Murder Inc. offices and a fake tuxedo rental business linked to a 1999 murder. He was accused of using the tuxedo shop as a front for laundering proceeds from stolen credit cards, AP reports. Ragin is also known to be a close associate of Kenneth "Supreme" McGriff, a convicted drug kingpin suspected of secretly bankrolling Murder Inc.--a 50-50 joint venture between McGriff's longtime friend Irv Gotti, and Island-Def Jam Records, a division of Universal Music Group, home to multi-platinum artists Ashanti and Ja Rule, AP reports. Neither McGriff, Gotti nor any of Vivendi's companies have been charged in the ongoing investigation.
Billed as "a (mostly) true story," "Cradle Will Rock" is an interesting and vibrant look at American theater and art worlds facing adversity in 1930s New York played out as a cautionary tale against artistic censorship.
With an imaginative and informative original screenplay that seamlessly harmonizes true-life events and characters with fictionalized ones and acted with a labor-of-love energy by a cast of over a dozen well-respected actors from both film and stage, Tim Robbins' third directorial and writing effort employs a style that can be described as being both Altmanesque in scope and Sturgeslike in pacing and tone.
Although taking all this in can be a little too frantic and overpowering at times, "Cradle Will Rock" authentically re-creates the look and feel of the period admirably. With a highly charged theatricality that incorporates music and wit, viewing the film almost seems like experiencing live Broadway musical theater (that fact, combined with the subject matter at hand, should make the film a rare delight for theater aficionados yet a bit daunting for some mainstream moviegoers).
At the heart of the story is a production led by a young Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen, a bit out of control). The production is a controversial musical piece about unionism by a little-known composer named Marc Blitzstein (an intense Hank Azaria). Under the auspices of the government's Works Progress Administration, Welles and his partner, John Houseman (captured with an amusing pretentiousness by Cary Elwes), lead a unit under the Federal Theatre Project (a Depression-era relief agency) headed by purposeful Hallie Flanagan (Tony winner Cherry Jones). Headed for trouble because of its supposedly inflammatory content, the play is eventually shut down by the federal government right before the first performance.
Also dealing with the concept of censorship is renowned Mexican artist Diego Rivera (spiritedly played by Ruben Blades), whose freedom of expression is denied after being commissioned by a controlling 24-year-old Nelson Rockefeller (a capable John Cusack) to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center.
Other figures of both the elite class, and struggling ones, are effectively played by diverse actors such as Joan Cusack, John Turturro, Emily Watson, Susan Sarandon, Jack Black, Paul Giamatti, John Carpenter and Bob Balaban.
Especially noteworthy are featured side stories involving Bill Murray as an alcoholic has-been ventriloquist and a breezy Kay Thompsonish performance by a delightful Vanessa Redgrave as the bohemian-spirited socialite wife of a fictional industrialist portrayed by the prolific Philip Baker Hall.
The coming together of all these tales is the climax of the piece, where the troupe of the ill-fated "The Cradle Will Rock" rally behind Welles, Houseman and Blitzstein to persevere in a show-must-go-on fashion (reminiscent of a popular theme in many musicals of the same time period). Extremely well-staged, this rousing finale captures an exciting yet fairly obscure moment in American musical-theater history and revels in it as a symbol of free expression triumphing over small-minded artistic oppression.
Outstanding technical expertise includes the work of esteemed French cinematographer Jean Yves Escoffier, frequent Altman editor Geraldine Peroni and Robbins' regular production designer, 1999 Tony Award winner Richard Hoover. Production is greatly served by the detailed work of costume designer Ruth Meyers (whose period work in 'L.A. Confidential' also left an impressive mark) and the team of hair and makeup artists headed, respectively, by Kathe Swanson and Linda Grimes.
* MPAA rating: R, for some language and sexuality.
"Cradle Will Rock"
Hank Azaria: Marc Blitzstein Angus MacFadyen: Orson Welles John Cusack: Nelson Rockefeller Cary Elwes: John Houseman Susan Sarandon: Margherita Sarfatti Emily Watson: Olive Stanton Joan Cusack: Hazel Huffman John Turturro: Aldo Silvano
A Buena Vista presentation. Director Tim Robbins. Screenplay Tim Robbins. Producers Tim Robbins, Jon Kilik and Lydia Dean Pilcher. Director of photography Jean Yves Escoffier. Editor Geraldine Peroni. Music David Robbins. Production designer Richard Hoover. Costume designer Ruth Myers. Art directors Troy Sizemore and Peter Rogers. Set decorator Deborah Schutt. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.