(by Dustin Putman
When actors are charismatic enough, they can go a long way in making palatable an otherwise dismal film. "This Means War," directed by McG (2009's "Terminator Salvation") with go-getter fortitude and a lot of obnoxious noise, is one such cinematic affair. It's glitzy and good-looking, but also so contrived on every single level that it feels more like a fantasy than a romantic comedy. Screenwriters Timothy Dowling (2011's "Just Go with It") and Simon Kinberg (2009's "Sherlock Holmes") show a spark for the occasionally quick-witted one-liner, but the plot proper is one of those forehead slappers that doesn't just dumb down its thirty-something characters to the level of freshmen in high school, but holds each of them in contempt. It is mighty hard to invest in relationships when the people involved are skeevy, dishonest liars, but darn if the cast isn't pleasing to watch. Article continues below
FDR (Chris Pine) and Tucker (Tom Hardy) are hot-shot secret agents for the CIA who are abruptly grounded at their Los Angeles headquarters and put on office duty following a botched job in Hong Kong that saw international hit man Heinrich's (Til Schweiger) brother killed. They've been best friends for ages, but one thing they never planned to share was a girl. That's right; through a series of total coincidences, Tucker has a brief but winsome coffee date with Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon), a successful consumer products tester, immediately before she bumps into Tucker at the video store and flirts with him over the merits of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre. When the truth gets out, the guys decide to keep Lauren in the dark that they know each other as they vie for her attention. "May the best man—for her—win," they declare before shaking on it. Meanwhile, Heinrich locates the boys and, bloodthirsty for revenge against his brother, heads for L.A.
At this point, it must sound like FDR and Tucker are rather juvenile in their actions. They are. "You have the emotional maturity of a 15-year-old!" Lauren snips at FDR when his initial attempts to impress her only make him seem conceited and shallow. The audience agrees with her assessment, then come to feel the precise same way about her when she suddenly sees her ex-boyfriend on the street with his new fianceé and forces FDR to pose as her perfect cardiologist significant other in an attempt to make him more jealous and her seem less pathetic. Or something like that. For being adults with careers that have unbelievably bought them trendy multi-million-dollar Hollywood homes—these places make the spacious NYC apartments in "Friends" look like dumpy closets—Lauren, FDR and Tucker sure do cling to underage mentalities. If Lauren does begin to feel guilt for stringing two boyfriends along at once—she's torn over which one she likes more—FDR and Tucker remain sleazeballs who plant cameras in Lauren's home to spy on her every move and take advantage of her vulnerabilities. Whether or not either of them fall in love with her is beside the point; how they've gone about doing it is a gross invasion of privacy. Naturally, following one quick "this-was-all-just-a-set-up?" falling-out, the brunt of what FDR and Tucker have been doing to Lauren is tidily swept underneath the rug, never to be brought up.
Reese Witherspoon (2011's "Water for Elephants") is so vivacious even in claptrap that she comes close to salvaging the project. At the least, her Lauren is given more to do than to be a pawn—she has her own ideas, longings, and regrets—and typically voices all of them to her sharp-tongued married gal pal Trish (Chelsea Handler). That's not to say the part isn't beneath her, but she does what she can with the script in question. Witherspoon's standout moment, however, might be an otherwise throwaway one, as she gleefully sings along to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It" while bopping around her house preparing to watch a movie. As the outspoken Trish, Chelsea Handler (2011's "Hop") gamely surpasses expectations for an acerbic comedian and television host who has begun to branch into acting. Her role is a perfunctory one—that of the female confidante whom Lauren turns to for advice—but Handler has a way of tossing out spiky bon mots while still keeping an intuitive grip on the character she is playing. As the super-sneaky objects of Lauren's affection, Chris Pine (2010's "Unstoppable") and Tom Hardy (2011's "Warrior") arguably have the toughest jobs, since they're supposed to be likable despite overstepping all boundaries in their simultaneous courting of Lauren. If they come close to pulling it off, it is strictly because the eye-piercing Pine, as FDR, and the buffly British Hardy, as Tucker, have an all-important spark bridging the gap between distinguished actor and dreamy movie star.
No matter how hot they are, the bottom line is that Lauren shouldn't be with either of them. FDR and Tucker—and even Lauren, since she's kept secrets of her own—have built their relationships on lies, and there's no getting around it. With that said, it's inevitable that one of the pairings has to end up sticking, and the choice Lauren ultimately makes between FDR and Tucker is the more believable one. "This Means War" is unnecessarily bombastic, and the revenge plot involving Heinrich gets in the way, only working as a means for director McG to deliver an auspicious climactic freeway chase that would be right at home in his successful 2000 "Charlie's Angels" revamp. Eventually, though, little by little, the spunky energy and freneticism starts to wear the viewer into submission. "This Means War" may be dumb, but at least it doesn't take itself too seriously. Still, it's hard to believe the project didn't begin with higher ambitions than this. Without the considerable contributions of Reese Witherspoon and the ensemble supporting her, this overblown trifle would be akin to nails on a chalkboard.