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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Milestone haircuts worked for Mia Farrow (see: "Rosemary's Baby") and Gwyneth Paltrow (see: "Sliding Doors"). But chopping off one's long locks did nothing for Keri Russell, star of the WB's "Felicity."
In fact, according to a network exec, the cut hurt the fledgling series, which won raves -- and a Golden Globe for Russell - in its first season. WB entertainment chief Susanne Daniels told reporters Monday that the reaction to Russell's crop top was "so overwhelmingly negative" that it hurt the show, which arguably was already suffering from creative drought. But Daniels won't dismiss the hair's factor in the downtrend. And just to play it safe, she says, "Nobody is cutting their hair again."
The 23-year-old Russell reportedly got tired of the long, corkscrew mane that became synonymous with her identity (and that of her show's lead character, Felicity Porter) and took to the barber, which resulted in a look so dramatic it warranted an episode of its own in the second season.
HOW TO WOO WOODY: In a new tell-all bio, "The Unruly Life of Woody Allen," out next month, we learn that the 64-year-old writer-director was roped into the relationship with his then-lover's adopted daughter.
Or so says author Marion Meade who writes that the young Soon-Yi Previn peppered Allen with questions about basketball and homework whenever he visited then-flame Mia Farrow. Allen, flattered by Soon-Yi's attentions, invited her to New York Knicks games, and she soon began to sneak out to visit him after classes in her high school uniform.
Also key to the capture, according to the tome, was Soon-Yi's biting remarks about mother Farrow, whom she regularly criticized, describing her as "no Mother Teresa." When Farrow finally discovered the affair, Soon-Yi threatened suicide, then gloated to Farrow that, "The person sleeping with the person is the one having the relationship," which spurred a physical fight between the two women.
"She shrewdly studied Mia's life and -- confident that a woman could win her heart's desire by aggressively pursuing older, successful men -- would soon emulate it," Meade writes.
NO PUFFY, EITHER: While country superstar Garth Brooks showed up to receive three American Music Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Monday night, nominee (and scheduled performer) Jennifer Lopez was a conspicuous no-show.
Host Norm MacDonald took the opportunity to take a couple shots at the M.I.A. actress-singer, commenting on her recent run-in with the law over boyfriend Sean "Puffy" Combs, as well as noting that an extra seat-filler was needed to, um, fill in for Lopez -- and her widely discussed derriere.
OBITUARIES: Benjamin "Ben" Masselink, who wrote and produced episodes of "Hawaii Five-O," "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "Starsky and Hutch," died Thursday of prostate cancer. He was 80. ...
James Card, a film preservationist who co-founded the Telluride Film Festival, died Sunday at age 84 after a lengthy illness. ...
John Newland, host of television's "Alcoa Presents" (1959-61) (later known as "One Step Beyond"), died Jan. 10 at age 82. Newland also directed TV movies and series, including "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," "Wonder Woman" and "Fantasy Island."
QUICK TAKES: Filmmaker Anthony Minghella, Golden Globe nominee for "The Talented Mr. Ripley," has been named Director of the Year by the National Association of Theater Owners. He'll be presented with the award at the group's annual ShoWest convention March 6-9. ...
Talk-show host Marie Osmond has confirmed her separation from Brian Blosil, her husband of 13 years. In a statement released Monday by her publicist, Osmond says the split was amicable and hopes "the media will respect our privacy during this period of our lives." No other details were released.