'This Means War': Deadly Dull
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Think of "This Means War" as a Valentine's Day leftover: a droopy love triangle seriously short on sexual chemistry, not to mention the kind of playful self-awareness that can spice up even the blandest romantic comedy. Doesn't help that the principals in this improbable contretemps -- CIA agent best buds and partners fall in love with the same woman -- come off as attractive androids programmed to act funny and charm the groundlings.
Desk-bound after a disastrous mission, our macho men are at loose ends, so Tuck the romantic (Tom Hardy), unable to make time with his pretty ex-wife, targets a firecracker he discovers on a dating website. Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) has firecracker status only because girlfriend Trish (Chelsea Handler) posted a wildly exaggerated profile in hopes of jump-starting her pal's stalled love life. (Spewing stand-up raunch with all the verve of a dead-eyed zombie, Handler hardly seems to register she's in a movie.)
Hardy's a gorgeous thug, his most come-hither feature plush lips that promise wicked pleasure. But he's badly miscast as lovesick Tuck. In past roles, he's been best as a killer thug, given to psychotic violence, fairly steaming with Brando-esque sexuality. But here he's gelded, playing a losing hand in the love game because he's too "safe" and "earnest"! This is not the "Warrior" we know and love.
Moments after hitting it off with Tuck on their first date, Lauren is distracted by FDR (Chris Pine). They meet cute in a video store, his prime hunting ground for one-night stands. A practiced pickup artist, armed with great hair and neon-blue bedroom eyes, Capt. Kirk lays down smart patter about the virtues of Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes." Confident of a payoff, FDR's knocked off balance when the unimpressed Lauren ripostes with an articulate counter-argument for the excellence of Hitch's American oeuvre. For just a second, it seems a spark might flare, sexual tension mixed with sharp dialogue, just the kind of aphrodisiac that heats up great screwball comedy.
But that is not to be. The spark fizzles, and what remains to move the story along is competitive, madcap courtship, with Tuck and FDR deploying all the resources of CIA recon, including intrusive spy gear, to discover Lauren's tastes and desires. This nonstop surveillance allows the rivals to discover and fulfill her wildest dreams (count how many times Lauren gushes, "Wow, this is amazing!") -- and later, to ascertain whether anyone has gotten to first base. Why not, one wonders, suss all this out by actually getting to know the girl? Why turn romance into a teen stalker's video game? Elementary, dear Watson: "This Means War" is directed by McG, action-addled auteur of "Charlie's Angels" and "Terminator Salvation."
At age 35, Witherspoon still looks and acts like she's trying to get elected legally blond ditz of the year. Every time this winsome actress gazes into the camera, she lights up -- an adorable, blue-eyed, blond Chihuahua -- as though someone off camera hit a switch. Though her character's a no-nonsense professional woman, Lauren strolls around in public looking like a teen dork: hairband, ponytail, huge earphones, hoodie, rolled-up jeans, sneakers.
The getup's sort of cute, as is Lauren's little-girl futzing and fibbing when she runs into her old flame and his attractive girlfriend. Thing is, Witherspoon rarely transcends that shtick, so it's pretty hard to see her as an object of desire, a woman who might be capable of grown-up stuff like sex, marriage, motherhood. Boogieing in her kitchen to "This Is How We Do It," she's like a curvaceous little Barbie doll, oblivious to the suitors slithering around like snakes, the better to place their bugs. Her kid stuff makes the peeping Toms even creepier, their violation of innocence and trust more deal-breaker than comedy.
Who doesn't like the idea of a salty grown-up woman who, faced with two equally desirable men, decides to break the tie in the bedroom? In the context, say, of a sophisticated French romantic comedy, such a move might be deliciously titillating. But we're not talking salty grown-up woman here, or classy comedy. Lauren exudes zero sexual appetite, and McG's boys are so mechanical in their pursuit, they're like wind-up toys hot for a kewpie doll.
"This Means War" is bookended by big action blowouts, McG-style: slapdash, mechanical, lines of action smeared all over the map. In one knock-down, drag-out brawl, Tuck and FDR appear to demolish each other, as well as a crowded upscale restaurant. But no, they stand up, covered in blood, and walk out, no questions asked. Fat chance that anyone might actually get hurt during the film's physical or emotional mash-ups. And there's never a bill for breakage.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.