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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WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Daigo loses his job in a symphony orchestra and decides to take off in new directions. He moves back to his hometown with his wife and answers an ad with the word “departures” thinking it’s for a glamorous job in the travel industry. It turns out to be an open position for an “encoffiner ” who prepares people for cremation. Needing money and taking on this new challenge without telling his wife he soon develops a new respect for people of all kinds one that will come in handy when the emotional issues of life and death hit very close to home.
WHO’S IN IT?
As the reluctant undertaker Masahiro Motoki is wonderfully understated and sensitive as his own frustrations give way to a deeply satisfying and sometimes painful new lease on life. His low-key performance is perfectly pitched for this beautifully spare drama and never seems forced or out of touch with the character. As his wife Mika Ryoko Hirosue is deeply touching earning audience sympathy and quiet respect. Tsutomu Yamazaki has the other major role as Daigo’s new boss and he’s droll and wise mentoring his new employee and subtly introducing him to a foreign world he never knew existed.
Director Yojiro Tokita has worked in a variety of film genres but nothing prepares you for the lyrical rhythms of Departures an enlightening and deeply satisfying movie of many small unexpected pleasures. If the deliberate pacing seems slow give it a chance to creep up on you. This is a film that doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve but earns our tears honestly and in real time. It’s ruminations on how we die — and how we live — while rooted in Japanese culture and customs that couldn't be more universal or relatable to anyone with a pulse.
With the imprimatur of a newly minted Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and 10 Japanese Academy Awards expectations may be too high for American audiences. This is a deceptively simple story sparingly told with dignity and wisdom. Hopefully moviegoers outside of Japan (where it has been an enormous local hit) will embrace it for what it is and see a bit of their own experience in the richly rewarding journey of Daigo.
It’s surprise win over stiff competition at this year’s Oscars was the biggest upset of the evening and proof that a movie with this kind of sincerity and solitude can trump the most formidable competition.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Considering the endangered species status of foreign language films in most American theaters it would be nice to support one as good as this and hope there’s more where it came from.