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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For waitress Jenna (Keri Russell) life is pie—but that’s strictly in culinary terms not metaphorical. In fact life is anything but easy or exciting for her: She spends every day working for a boss (Lew Temple) she hates before going home to a husband Earl (Jeremy Sisto) she hates even more. The lone highlight of Jenna’s day—besides seeing her only two friends Becky (Cheryl Hines) and Dawn (Adrienne Shelly) at work—comes when assembling naming and baking her town-renowned daily pie; today it’s the self-explanatory “I Don’t Want Earl’s Baby” pie. To her having a baby would put on hold her dreams of winning an upcoming $25 000 pie contest which would enable her to leave Earl. Alas she finds out she is pregnant with Earl’s baby but something good comes out her trip to the OB/GYN—her new young doc from Connecticut Dr. Pomatter (Nathan Fillion). He’s different and his attitude is alien to this Southern town but he makes Jenna feel like she matters and it’s not long before she reciprocates. As her due date nears and their secretive affair progresses her confusion only grows but she finds clarity from the most unexpected source. Russell is a long way from Felicity the TV show that launched her career but sometimes escaping the pigeonhole of a character as popular as Felicity Porter takes more than mere time. It often takes a left-of-center role like this one and if Russell’s sole intention was to leave her past in the dust she succeeds—and then some. As Jenna she arouses everything from sadness to joy to tears of both leaving out the forced drama that made her a teen favorite years ago. And yet she maintains an undeniable air of well cuteness that enables her to play younger than she is in reality. Equally refreshing perpetual up-and-comer Fillion (Serenity) does a great job of making his relationship with Russell seem an unlikely one. He also displays great comedic skills which we last saw in ‘05’s Slither. Frankly there’s no good reason he’s not a leading man. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Hines about the last actress you’d pick to play a Southern waitress gives her best movie performance to date even if only by proving doubters like myself wrong. Indie vets Shelly (Factotum) and Sisto (Six Feet Under) are also impressive in their comedic and somewhat villainous roles respectively. And Andy Griffith even stops by for some memorable lines! Beneath this syrupy sweet tale of pleasantness lies a pitch-black back story: Waitress writer/director/costar Adrienne Shelly was murdered in New York City towards the end of completing her movie. The shame of that in movie terms lies not only in the fact that she will obviously never see what is her best and most accessible directing effort but also that she clearly possessed massive talent and we’ll never know where she might’ve taken it. With Waitress Shelly created a warm fuzzy and vaguely nostalgic Southern dramedy with much less emphasis on the drama. And while her characters might not be completely honest representations of the South Shelly at least steers clear of offensive stereotypes that seem to saturate today’s movies opting to make Jenna’s plight the true conflict instead of choosing the proverbial “Southern climate.” Elsewhere Shelly does virtually no wrong. Waitress is exclusively about the female point of view which is quite refreshing. Shelly’s long takes of quirky dialogue between female characters—think G-rated Tarantino—are nothing short of hilarious and although the proceedings tend to take a conventional turn you’re always caught by surprise. As the tearjerker female-empowerment ending unfolds you can’t help but wipe the smile from your face and wish Shelly were still around; film could sure use a positive shot in the arm like her right about now.