Who is the Victor in This Means War? Not the Viewer

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20th Century Fox

Technically, movies don’t give off a scent, but This Means War is so smarmy that it seems to reek of cheap cologne. It features a competition between a lonely divorced dad (Tom Hardy) and a loudmouthed Lothario (Chris Pine) over a woman (Reese Witherspoon) who has no idea that they are best friends or that they are CIA agents. This Means War is a romantic comedy that’s been dressed up, in the manner of the much better Mr. & Mrs. Smith, to look like an action flick, presumably to persuade men that they won’t be emasculated by seeing it on date night. But if last weekend’s The Vow represents complete surrender, This Means War represents a gloomy compromise; no one who sees it will emerge victorious.

Directed by McG, This Means War is lit like an advertisement for a cruise line, all harsh candy colors in daylight, various shades of neon at night and garish 24/7. Both Hardy, who plays gentle Tuck, and Pine, as Tuck’s partner Franklin (a.k.a. FDR), are good looking men, but in this hyper saturated color and lighting scheme, you’d barely know it. With his eerily bright blue eyes and expansive forehead, Pine looks like an alien. Director McG (Terminator Salvation, Charlie’s Angels) fails the first rule of romantic comedies: make sure everyone but the best friends look pretty.

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He opens the film with Tuck and FDR on a mission that ends with tons of dead bodies, but without them having captured their hissing German target Heinrich (Til Schweiger). The botched operation is dramatically dead — who cares if Heinrich shows up again? — and serves the sole purpose of getting Tuck and FDR grounded in the CIA’s spacious, improbably slick Los Angeles office, where Tuck now has the time to try Internet dating. As luck would have it, cranky hausfrau Trish (Chelsea Handler) has just posted her lovelorn best friend Lauren’s (Witherspoon) profile, loading it with trashy photos. “Men are going to respond to that camel toe,” Trish assures the milquetoast Lauren.

Soon both men are vying for Lauren’s affections, although affection seems a pliable concept in FDR’s world. He is, as Lauren points out during their first, accidental encounter at a video store, “a one-day rental kind of guy.”  (She also scolds him for recommending she go home with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, when, as she knows Vertigo, Notorious, and Rebecca are all better. Embedded in there is a clue as to which of the two Lauren will end up with.) On her first date with Tuck, he takes her to a carnival and entices her into trying out the trapeze with him, which looks like a lot of fun. On her first date with FDR, he takes her to a club filled with women dressed like hookers. With just about the only flash of that trademark Witherspoon crispness, Lauren denounces him as a club rat and flees.

Good sense indicates that Lauren’s dating dilemma has been resolved, but the movie continues to tease the possibility that Pine’s bad boy is as much a viable and interested suitor as Hardy’s wholly sexy good man (he makes a surprisingly relaxed leading man). She ping pongs between them, encouraged by Trish, with both men using their CIA resources to spy on her. “Patriot Act!” one of them says when someone points out the privacy issues. Although it is veiled by a seemingly progressive outlook for a mainstream romantic comedy — namely that a woman can sample the wares of various men before making her choice — the movie is filled with casual misogyny. While Lauren makes judgments for a living, heading a consumer products testing agency, she’s addled about this choice. Watching and listening by hidden cameras and microphones as Lauren and Trish debate the relative merits of Tuck vs. FDR, a mystified FDR asks, “Why is she listening to that old man?” Handler’s character, with her multiple small children, may be a little too tired to be a proper MILF, but the guy who refers to her as an “old man” is not the guy any nice girl like Lauren should settle down with. 

But This Means War has a terrible sense of chemistry all the way around. Even the pairing of Witherspoon and Handler, which has, on paper, an undeniable allure (ladylike Oscar winner hanging with foul-mouthed late night comedy queen) turns out to be a dud. Handler is a sly, crude pleasure on her mischievous talk show, but playing a “domestic goddess” in the mold of Roseanne Barr, she spits out her lines mechanically, without varying her tone of sour resentment. She seems miserable. But the one to worry about is Reese Witherspoon. What is the compulsively watchable star of Freeway, Election, Legally Blonde and Walk the Line doing in immature garbage like this? Couldn’t she smell disaster?

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