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.
Follow Thomas Leupp on Twitter.
Follow Hollywood.com on Twitter.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
Planet of the Apes proved to be the 400 pound box office gorilla insiders anticipated, opening to nearly $70 million.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 sci-fi action adventure inspired by the studio's 1968 classic of the same name landed in first place with an out of this world record setting ESTIMATED $69.55 million at 3,500 theaters ($19,871 per theater).
Apes' average per theater was the highest for any film playing in wide or limited release this weekend.
Directed by Tim Burton and produced by Richard D. Zanuck, it stars Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter and Michael Clarke Duncan.
"This is as good as it gets," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning. "It's the best non-holiday weekend opening ever. Mummy Returns had that position at $68.139 million and we're going to blow past that with $69.55 million. It's the second best weekend (of any type) ever. Lost World: Jurassic Park's three day -- they had a four day of $90 million -- was $72.132 million. So we are the highest non-holiday and the second highest (for any weekend)."
An indication of the enormous expectations theater owners had for the film is that its theater count continued to rise right down to the wire. With a count of 3,494 theaters going into the weekend, Snyder said that as of Sunday morning, "It's actually 3,499. Call me crazy -- I'm calling it 3,500 now! They kept adding them. I swear, every time I saw (the total) it was like, here's another one."
Looking back, Snyder noted, "The original Apes from which the whole franchise sprang did $32.5 million (in its domestic theatrical run). I think we had that by noon yesterday!"
Asked why the new Apes has worked so well, Snyder replied "I think it's the concept. We're somewhat older audience-wise, so this isn't just about being driven by kids. This is being driven by you and I and 35-year-olds. Sixty-two percent (of those on hand opening weekend) were over 25 years of age. So we've still got some young people to get, which is terrific. That really bodes well."
Snyder did not have detailed exit poll data in hand yet early Sunday morning, but said, "I've just gotten it read to me over the phone and it played fabulously. It's a people picture."
Faced with the arrival of Apes, Universal and Amblin Entertainment's PG-13 rated action adventure fantasy sequel Jurassic Park III took a predictably sharp drop second weekend drop, falling one peg to second place with a still larger than life ESTIMATED $22.49 million (-56 percent) at 3,439 theaters (+5 theaters; $6,540 per theater). Its cume is approximately $124.8 million, heading for $175-200 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Joe Johnston, JP III stars Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Tea Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, John Diehl and Bruce A. Young.
Revolution Studios and Columbia Pictures' PG-13 rated romantic comedy America's Sweethearts slid one slot to third place in its second week with a still attractive ESTIMATED $15.7 million (-48 percent) at 3,011 theaters (theater count unchanged; $5,214 per theater). Its cume is approximately $59.4 million.
Directed by Joe Roth, it stars Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal, Catherine Zeta-Jones and John Cusack.
"Listen, in today's world down 48 percent is above average," Sony Pictures Entertainment worldwide marketing & distribution president Jeff Blake said Sunday morning.
"We certainly would hope even better holds lay ahead. We have survived against two of the biggest openings in history (with Jurassic III and Apes) in the last two weeks. While Rush Hour 2 lays ahead, it's pretty different (in terms of core audience) and we would hope for even better holds ahead. But off a $30 million opening and what's been going on this summer (in terms of second weekend drops in the 50 percents), this is not bad at all. I think this still points us towards $100 million and that would be a very nice target to aim at."
MGM's PG-13 rated comedy hit Legally Blonde fell two rungs to fourth in its third week, still showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $9.0 million (-19 percent) at 2,725 theaters (+30 theaters; $3,304 per theater).
Blonde, which cost only $18 million to produce,has a cume of approximately $59.8 million and is on its way to a very profitable $75-80 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Robert Luketic, the Marc Platt production stars Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber and Jennifer Coolidge with a special appearance by Raquel Welch.
Paramount's R rated crime drama The Score dropped two notches to fifth place in its third week with an okay ESTIMATED $7.3 million (-32 percent) at 2,211 theaters (+51 theaters; $3,305 per theater). Its cume is approximately $49.4 million.
Directed by Frank Oz, it stars Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Angela Bassett and Marlon Brando.
Cats & Dogs, the PG rated family appeal comedy from Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment, fell one peg to sixth place in its fourth week with a calm ESTIMATED $4.52 million (-34 percent) at 2,816 theaters (-224 theaters; $1,603 per theater). Its cume is approximately $81.5 million, heading for $100 million in domestic theaters.
20th Century Fox and Davis Entertainment's PG rated comedy sequel Dr. Dolittle 2 rose one notch to seventh place in its sixth week, holding very well with an ESTIMATED $4.18 million (-13 percent) at 2,190 theaters (-244 theaters; $1,906 per theater). Its cume is approximately $100.8 million, heading for $110 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Steve Carr and produced by John Davis, it stars Eddie Murphy.
"We have a second piece of good news," Fox's Bruce Snyder said Sunday morning after talking about the studio's success with Apes. "Dr. Dolittle hit $100 million this weekend. It and Shrek were the only movies that were impervious to the [huge Apes] opening. We were only off 13 percent. I think we should scratch to $110 million."
Universal's PG-13 action drama The Fast and the Furious dipped two rungs to eighth place in its sixth week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $3.78 million (-29 percent) at 2,415 theaters (-317 theaters; $1,565 per theater). Fast, which cost a modest $38 million, has a cume of approximately $132.2 million.
Directed by Rob Cohen and produced by Neal H. Moritz, it stars Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster.
Dimension Films' R rated horror film spoof sequel Scary Movie 2 fell two rungs to ninth place in its fourth week with a quiet ESTIMATED $2.6 million (-43 percent) at 2,179 theaters (-623 theaters; $1,193 per theater). Its cume is approximately $67.0 million, heading for $70 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans, it stars Shawn Wayans, Marlon Wayans, Anna Faris, Regina Hall, Christopher Masterson and Kathleen Robertson.
Rounding out the Top Ten was DreamWorks' PG rated computer animated blockbuster Shrek, up one notch in its 11th week and still showing good legs with an ESTIMATED $1.7 million (-24 percent) at 1,439 theaters (-112 theaters; $1,209 per theater). Its cume is approximately $255.5 million on its way to $260 million or more.
Directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, its voice talents include Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz and John Lithgow.
This weekend also saw the arrival of USA Films' R rated comedy Wet Hot American Summer with a hopeful ESTIMATED $0.021 million at 2 theaters ($10,397 per theater).
Directed by David Wain, it stars Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce.
Buena Vista/Disney held very well attended sneak previews at 1,150 theaters this weekend of its G rated family appeal comedy The Princess Diaries.
Directed by Garry Marshall, it stars Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway.
Disney said Sunday morning that 45 percent of the theaters were sold out and the rest played to 80-90 percent of capacity. Those on hand covered the entire age spectrum and scored the film 91 percent in the Top Two Boxes (excellent and very good.)
Diaries opens wide this Friday (Aug. 3).
On the expansion front, this weekend saw Artisan's R rated comedy Made widen in its third week with a still encouraging ESTIMATED $0.63 million at 195 theaters (+86 theaters; $6,005 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.3 million.
Written and directed by Jon Favreau, it stars Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Sean Combs, Famke Janssen, Faizon Love and Peter Falk.
Miramax's R rated French comedy The Closet went wider in its fifth week with an okay ESTIMATED $0.37 million (+9 percent) at 98 theaters (+33 theaters; $3,775 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.8 million.
Directed by Francis Veber, it stars Daniel Auteuil, Gerard Depardieu, Thierry Lhermitte and Michele Laroque.
Fox Searchlight's R rated critically acclaimed British crime thriller Sexy Beast added a few theaters in its seventh week, still holding well with an ESTIMATED $0.34 million (-17 percent) at 193 theaters (+5 theaters; $1,780 per theater). Its cume is approximately $5.1 million.
Directed by Jonathan Glazer, it stars Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.
Lions Gate Films' PG-13 rated drama Songcatcher continued to widen in its seventh week with a soft ESTIMATED $0.18 million (-19 percent) at 104 theaters (+13 theaters; $1,750 per theater). Its cume is approximately $1.6 million.
Directed by Maggie Greenwald, it stars Janet McTeer and Aidan Quinn.
MGM's release of United Artists' R rated youth appeal comedy Ghost World widened in its second week with a lively ESTIMATED $0.13 million (+29 percent) at 8 theaters (+3 theaters; $16,000 per theater) in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle. Its cume is approximately $0.3 million.
Directed by Terry Zwigoff, it stars Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansson, Brad Renfro, Illeana Douglas and Steve Buscemi.
MGM said that this Friday (Aug. 3) Ghost will add 7 more markets and 14 theaters, bringing its total for the weekend to 22 theaters and 10 markets.
Fine Line Features' R rated rock musical drama Hedwig and the Angry Inch added a few theaters in its second week with a still hopeful ESTIMATED $0.11 million (-30 percent) at 11 theaters (+2 theaters; $9,924 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.4 million.
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who also wrote adapted his hit Off-Broadway play to the screen, Hedwig stars Mitchell in its title role.
Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 -- took in approximately $148.47 million, up about 18.04 percent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $125.78 million.
This weekend's key film gross was up about 5.86 percent from last weekend this year when key films took in $140.24 million.
Last year, Universal's opening week of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps was first with $42.52 million at 3,242 theaters ($13,115 per theater); and DreamWorks' second week of What Lies Beneath was second with $22.86 million at 2,825 theaters ($8,093 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $65.4 million. This year, the top two films grossed an ESTIMATED $92.1 million.