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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‘This is uncomfortable.’
S02E12 So much of this week’s Modern Family dealt with the uncomfortable that I’m not sure how well it worked. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy uncomfortable and awkward comedy (what up Extras), but it's time and place is not with this show. Modern Family works best when it ends on sentiment and heart, not with a cringe.
‘Okay, let's slow down. You’re nice people, we’re nice people. But let's be honest, we’ve all tried to do that thing where we try to force that friendship that isn’t really there.’
Best example - Jay and Gloria’s story. They get a surprise visit from a couple they met on vacation that somehow managed to track them down. Never mind that this couple just shows up unannounced and Gloria lets them stay the night (that odd story would’ve been more entertaining, but whatever), Jay doesn’t like them and eventually tells them to their face. Embarrassed, Gloria lies to them explaining that Jay is so old he is off his rocker.
The story ends with the family leaving (by the way, good to see Mad TV’s Stephanie Weir again. Never really liked her skits too much, but I always appreciated the lengths she was willing to go) and Jay dribbling OJ on his shirt thanks to Manny. All the humor from this story came from miscommunication and since the only way out of that conflict would be Gloria explaining what she did to Jay (which would’ve been very not funny), it just ended. Not the best story of the week. But we did get Gloria in a silk nightie, so we’re not completely complaining about it.
‘You’re so gay you can’t even think of real girl’s names.’
For all my talk of Modern Family having no heart and sentiment this week, Cam and Mitch’s story had a very touching moment in the middle. Cam had just met Mitch’s high school girlfriend (after accidentally running into her at the mall) and Mitch spotted her with what looked like an 8 year-old redheaded son. Cam was appropriately (and hilariously) shocked to find this out. The next morning they reconciled in a very loving and mature manner that beautifully showed how real this relationship is.
‘You naughty little girl.’
‘Well, you know, that’s what happens when you give me Kahlua.’
But then things got very awkward when they went over to the ex-girlfriend’s house and discovered not a child, but a little person. While this is delightfully squirmy, come on. Did you really expect Mitchell to have a love child? What would that have done to the series as a whole? It would completely mess up the dynamic of the show. And after all, sitcom rule states that everything has to be reset to zero at the end of the show. Modern Family wouldn’t do that to us. But it was still funny so I’ll get off my soap box now.
‘I keep picturing all those Sanjays.’
The Claire and Phil story didn’t have as much awkward humor as the other two (how could you when you’re gleefully going to see a movie called Croctopus?) but it still dealt in the negative aspect of things. Claire and Phil get worried when Alex is so focused on beating this certain kid at school that when they see said kid’s parents at the movies going to see some boring foreign film, they go to see it too. Claire falls asleep and Phil goes and sees the 3D splatter fest. And in the end they realize that they don’t care, Alex is a great kid despite how stupid they may be.
So while their story’s humor might not have come from basic miscommunication (like the other two), it still was based in negativity. Modern Family works best when it ends in the positive. Humor can definitely be found when things go wrong, but Modern Family set its own standards in the first season by ending on the up swing. I’m not saying this episode wasn’t funny (because it was) but that Modern Family needs to find its core again.
Well, Modern Family also needs to include the kids more because after this week’s noticeable absence of most of the younger generation the humor suffer. Bring back Luke!