Tuesday, February 14, 2012

'This Means War' Review

When people -- fellow film critics, specifically -- complain about how bad studio movies are, I always want to throw in a slight correction. I think studios still come up with good ideas for movies; it's just the execution that's out of whack. Already this year, we've had three perfectly clever concepts for marketable films: A group of crash survivors have to battle nature (and wolves) in The Grey; a loving couple are forced to reexamine their relationship after one of them gets amnesia in The Vow; and two ace CIA operatives (and best friends) find themselves using their talents to win over the same girl in This Means War. You can roll your eyes at any of those high-concept plots, but I'd argue that absolutely entertaining, engaging Hollywood movies could be made out of them. It's all in how they're made.

In the right hands, This Means War could have been a gleefully amoral romantic action-comedy that satirizes the American intelligence community's arrogance and disregard for the very people they're supposedly protecting. (The underrated, though uneven, Burn After Reading danced around this theme a little.) And casting Chris Pine and Tom Hardy as the CIA operatives and Reese Witherspoon as the object of their affection is hardly a recipe for disaster. But since the debut of the first trailer back in October, it seemed pretty obvious that director McG had gone about this entirely wrong. But trailers aren't movies, so I remained open to the possibility that This Means War might be fun.

Unfortunately, the movie is unsuccessful in all the ways that studio movies are unsuccessful these days. McG and his cast have taken a juicy premise and infantilized it. Pine and Hardy are best friends, but, of course, they're amazingly diametrically-opposed best friends: Pine is the swinging ladies' man, while Hardy is the sensitive guy with the son and ex-wife. And, because this is a movie, Witherspoon's character looks like Reese Witherspoon but yet somehow can't find any men -- any at all -- although she lives in Los Angeles. Through silly coincidences that are always easier to swallow when they're accompanied by sharp, witty banter -- which this movies tries so hard to achieve -- both guys discover they're dating Witherspoon. But rather than discussing it maturely -- or telling her that they know each other -- they concoct an elaborate set of ground rules that, of course, will be violated rather quickly.

This Means War is one of those films that finds it endlessly amusing when certain characters are tricking other characters into falling in love with them. Come to think of it, this has sort of been the M.O. of a lot of romantic comedies over the last 10 years, which inevitably leads to that predictable third-act moment when the unsuspecting person learns the truth and there are lots of earnest confessions from the other character along the lines of "I wasn't trying to hurt you -- I didn't expect to fall in love!" Something like that kinda happens in This Means War, but if you're looking for advice from this film in how to smooth over such a predicament, the answer seems to be, Put the woman's life in danger as quickly as possible and then rescue her. Yeah, chicks fall for stuff like that, bro.

Naturally, the makers of This Means War would object to such criticism, insisting that it's "just a movie" and that people "shouldn't take it so seriously." Which would be fine, except for the fact that This Means War achieves the rather astounding feat of making three very charming performers rather repellant. Pine is no stranger to playing cocky, but in comparison to his more winning turns in Star Trek and Unstoppable, his character in This Means War is just a jerk. He never quite gets around to understanding that a conceited ladies' man is only enjoyable if there's some sort of deep insecurity underneath it all. As for Hardy, he's a cliche of a romantic doormat, but not, y'know, a funny cliche of a romantic doormat. And Witherspoon is completely adequate as the high-maintenance love interest, although I'm considering offering a huge reward to Hollywood if I can watch just one mainstream romantic comedy whose female character isn't high-maintenance. But none of these stars' inherent likability is worth a lick since they're forced to play petty, glib, self-absorbed characters whom, I gather, I'm supposed to relate to because, doggone it, love is so complicated, huh?

While suffering through This Means War and its rather inane portrayals of both sexes -- which is to say nothing of its inane vision of what married life is like -- I flashed on a rather unlikely double-bill partner for this film: In the Company of Men. It's not all that similar -- in that one, two vindictive creeps decide to date the same woman to break her heart -- but there are some of the same power dynamics going on. In Company of Men, one guy is all confident charisma, while the other is more of a sweet pushover. And the poor woman, who's just looking for love, has no idea of the larger game that's afoot. That movie had a pretty great concept, and look how well they developed it. As for This Means War, it appears that everybody involved fell in love with the concept and left the details to the marketing people.