Monday, March 5, 2012

Wartime Comedy

Here's how I imagine the idea for This Means War came about: a studio promoter, a teenage girl, and a 44-year-old director who still insists on calling himself "McG" were locked into a room together,  allowed to leave only once they'd agreed on the next film to be made by the man responsible for bringing Charlie's Angels to the big screen. When all was said and done, a spy comedy starring two rising actors (in Star Trek's Chris Pine and Inception's Tom Hardy) was born, with Reese Witherspoon cast as the love object of both men. Witherspoon's addition makes it obvious: this is and always was meant to be a chick flick. However, while the actress is certainly more of a name-brand commodity than either Pine or Hardy at this point in either young man's careers, she is not without her bugaboos, most notably a significant downturn in her career since winning the Best Actress Academy Award for 2005's Walk the Line. It seems that more people have focused on her split from former beau Ryan Phillippe than the movies in which she's starred. Her releases haven't really FLOPPED, but neither have they broken free from the constraints of mediocre draws. Appealing to a younger audience seems like the right choice for the veteran actress, and maybe her unique energy can elevate a film that, on paper, looks like a combination of the worst cliches that spy and romantic comedies perpetrate.

All you tween girls can start screaming now...
CIA agents Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foster (Pine) and Tuck Henson (Hardy) are the best of the best, and the best of friends as well. But after a mission in Hong Kong goes south, their boss confines them to desk duty to help protect them from ruthless international criminal Heinrich (Til Schweiger), who has sworn revenge after the two accidentally killed Heinrich's brother in the line of duty. With the extra time on their hands, FDR and Tuck find themselves seeking romance with the same woman, Lauren Scott (Witherspoon), who doesn't realize that the two men she's become involved with are not only coworkers but best friends. Or, at least they were friends before they got involved with Lauren, as the two go from staying out of one another's way and "letting her decide" to using every tool at their disposal to sabotage the other, desperate to win the affections of Miss Scott. Meanwhile, Heinrich begins to make his way to the agents' home city of Los Angeles to enact his revenge upon the quarreling duo.

Whether she's got a great surgeon or just good genes, Witherspoon still has it all going on.
Let's get the main criticism out of the way first: that these two young, brash agents can do pretty much anything they want in seeking this woman's heart seems lighthearted at first but is completely implausible in practice. The two plant bugs in her home, have junior agents study her entire background, and pretty much act like stalkers in an effort to get an edge on their competition. This wouldn't be so bad if they didn't GET AWAY WITH IT so easily. They are never questioned by superiors, when juniors wonder why they're checking in on this completely innocent American citizen the response is that those details are "classified", and when the pair really delve into non-grey no-no territory, one of them quips "Patriot Act" as justification of their actions. Sure, these issues can be seen as completely fictionalized and unworthy of scrutiny, but at a time in which many people already don't trust their government to keep out of their business, this seems like unnecessarily pouring fuel on the fire. That either man gets the girl in the end is more than a little cockamamie considering what he did to get there.

"No, really, the Star Trek reboot is great! The guy who plays Kirk is going to go places!"
There are some reasons to at least glance at this title, however. The charisma of the two males is undeniable, and actually allows the audience to forgive those characters their (multiple) trespasses over the length of the film. Pine channels a bit of Kirk in his womanizing stud FDR, who never cared to get into a real relationship before meeting his match in Lauren. And you can't help but love Hardy's Tuck, who is so earnest and endeavoring to please. While the characters themselves are little more than archetypes of good boy/bad boy stereotypes, it is the talent of both young actors which really allows them to rise oh-so-slightly above those cliches and make them characters worth rooting for. Witherspoon also unsurprisingly brings her unique bubbly enthusiasm to the big screen, though her character seems even more unassuming and naive than in her Legally Blonde days. She never quite matches up to that level of desirable that demands that these two men destroy their friendship over her, and we never feel bad about the "tough" decision she must make about her future. Chelsea Handler is uneven as Lauren's married best friend; Handler's expertise is dirty humor, and while she gets a few moments to shine, I felt like the film never really took advantage of her presence to raise the quality of the humor present. Schweiger, Germany's most popular actor, once again plays an emotionless European criminal, a Hollywood career I had hoped he would avoid after stealing a few scenes in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Sadly, Pine doesn't START... talking like... THIS... after being drugged
The humor is also okay, with some chuckles surviving the transition from script to screen successfully. Of course, much of the humor is dependent on Handler; when she's at her best, the film is just fine. When she is held back, the whole thing is far less interesting. The film's action is actually among the best I've seen so far this year, a staple with McG that has actually gotten better with experience, unlike the rest of his "skills." It's a shame these two elements can't make up for poor character development, a bare-bones plot, and deliberate theft from other franchises, including There's Something About Mary and Bad Boys, just to name a few. It's like the filmmakers were worried that there might be something original about This Means War, and set out to squash that possibility as quickly as they could. Toss in the fact that the entire Heinrich story was sidelined instead of being woven into the main tale, and what you have is a romantic comedy that isn't romantic or even all that funny, and an action movie whose best elements are hindered by the aforementioned poor romantic comedy.

Countdown to shit storm in 3... 2...
It's the terrible rendition of friendships and romantic relationships that ultimately sinks McG's latest outing. Not giving his stars a chance to grow beyond the confines of an awful script, This Means War is easily one of the worst movies I've seen in 2012's first three months. I had been hoping that the film would go places I wasn't expecting, only to find myself completely disabused of that notion a mere quarter of the way through. There is some serious talent present here, but sadly that's not nearly enough to make a worthwhile movie-going experience. It seems many out there agree; the film has been a financial flop, not a good sign for the actors involved, especially Hardy, whose post-Inception track record also includes the excellent bomb Warrior, released last year. Still, I expect all these actors to get off scot free, as Pine and Hardy are young enough to recover, and Witherspoon still has enough natural charm to get regular work. I'm honestly not looking forward to another McG film however, as it seems he's given up on the whole "career maturation" thing and is simply unable to make great films. He proved that with Terminator: Salvation, and he proved it here today.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

Though I see one or two movies a week, this one didn't even make my "maybe I'll see it" list.
I know that one shouldn't form an opinion solely based on a trailer, but every time I saw the trailer for "This Means War" it drove home to me why I shouldn't see it. My rule of thumb for missing a "comedy" film, if they have to resort to a guy getting hit in the crotch as part of their trailer….. I'll pass.