Friday, February 17, 2012

This Means War: Intermittently funny battle for love

This Means War (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG-13, and quite generously, for profanity, violence, sexual content and plenty of smutty dialogue
By Derrick Bang

Most films benefit from the guiding hand of a competent director ... which is, after all, the point of the entire endeavor.

Are CIA agents ever this cute? FDR (Chris Pine, left) and best friend Tuck (Tom
Hardy) size up the opposition before plunging into a furiously choreographed
battle. Alas, this melee will have dire consequences, when one baddie gets away
and swears revenge.
On the other hand, some films succeed in spite of ham-fisted directors, and This Means War is a perfect example. The director who prefers to be known as McG — born Joseph McGinty Nichol — never has been what could be termed a thoughtful filmmaker; his oeuvre runs to flashy action fare such as Charlie’s Angels and Terminator Salvation.

In fairness, he also delivered a genuinely heartfelt drama with We Are Marshall: apparently a bid for respectability.

But his tendency toward wretched excess obviously proved too great a temptation, when it came to This Means War. McG’s egregiously stylistic flourishes constantly get in the way, and he appears to have fired his continuity supervisor; key plot points and minor details come and go at random.

Granted, the script is something of a hodge-podge to begin with; one gets a sense that writers Timothy Dowling, Marcus Gautesen and Simon Kinberg didn’t agree on much. But the core premise is cute and engaging: Best-buddy CIA agents FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) accidentally wind up dating the same woman, a Consumer Reports-style product tester named Lauren (Reese Witherspoon).

FDR and Tuck figure this out quickly, and agree to let Lauren’s heart choose between them ... without telling her any of this. (She never sees them together.)

At first, with minimal emotional involvement, FDR and Tuck have no trouble keeping things honorable. Unfortunately, as they both begin to fall for Lauren, their behavior becomes increasingly petty, their determination to sabotage each other’s date nights increasingly nasty (and funny). Eventually, the friendship and working relationship begin to fray.

Bad timing on that, since a vengeful villain from a recent mission has promised to kill them both.

And Lauren? Heck, after being dateless for so long — the usual plot point that raises eyebrows, when dealing with somebody of Witherspoon’s blinding charm and hotness — she’s in seventh heaven, courting two hunky guys with an uncanny knack for catering to her interests, hobbies and passions.

No surprise there: FDR and Tuck have mobilized surveillance teams to bug her entire life and research every detail from her past. When these junior operatives worry aloud about privacy issues, FDR reassures them with the catch-all answer: “Patriot Act.”

Utterly preposterous, to be sure, but laden with potential. Most importantly, Pine, Hardy and Witherspoon plunge enthusiastically into every crazed detail.

All three display solid comic timing: particularly Pine, whose skill set expands and improves, with each new film. He and his two co-stars get the maximum mileage from the snarky dialogue and several of the better physical gags, as when Tuck goes all-out commando during a “fun” paint-ball outing with Lauren, or when FDR succumbs to the tranquilizer dart that has just torpedoed the third — and potentially best — act of a great date night.

Dowling, Gautesen and Kinberg may not have a firm grip on their plot, but they do write great dialogue. Some of the incidental set-ups also are clever and hilarious. In short, when Pine, Hardy and Witherspoon are front and center, this film delivers plenty of engaging star wattage and screwball comedy-style laughter.

Other elements ... not so much.

The action scenes — starting with the one that introduces our two CIA heroes, and allows them to strut their stuff — are assembled with such machine-gun ferocity that we literally can’t see the smooth moves, in order to appreciate them. Editor Nicolas De Toth, apparently determined to out-cut even the most crazed rock video, could win an award — a dubious distinction, mind you — for most jumps per second.

And what’s with the extended black-outs between certain scenes? An inept effort to convey the passage of time? This happens half a dozen times during the course of this 98-minute action comedy, each pause lingering so long that we can’t help wondering if the film broke (something that can’t happen in this digital age, but you get my drift). It’s a bewildering affectation, and distracting every time.

Then there’s the matter of Lauren’s best gal pal, Trish, a role clearly designed for Chelsea Handler’s smutty stand-up persona. Unfortunately, Trish’s bawdy dialogue — and her equally vulgar “advice” — aren’t nearly as funny as McG and the scripters seem to assume, and Handler’s delivery isn’t up to the challenge. Granted, Trish is intended to be forced, loud and abrasive ... but those words — along with clumsy — also describe Handler’s performance.

At the same time, Trish’s crude commentary is raunchy enough to make a mockery of this film’s PG-13 rating, demonstrating anew that the arbitrary idiots serving as MPAA “watchdogs” routinely give a pass to big-studio productions. (It should be noted that this film won its PG-13 on appeal, after first getting nailed with a far more appropriate R.)

Then there’s the matter of continuity. In the early stages, with “game on,” FDR and Tuck independently assemble separate surveillance teams, which monitor the information gathered by audio and video bugs our bad boys distribute liberally throughout Lauren’s apartment (while she’s there, and without her noticing ... quite funny, if unlikely). Then, suddenly, FDR and Tuck are monitoring the information together, in the same CIA booth. Say what?

Later, FDR attempts to impress the animal-loving Lauren by adopting a frail, 12-year-old pooch. The dog subsequently makes one token appearance in his apartment, then never is seen again. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy.

Speaking of FDR’s apartment, there’s the matter of the building’s rooftop pool, whose glass bottom is his entryway “ceiling.” It’s a striking architectural detail, but one wonders why anybody would use a pool that affords such a view to the Peeping Tom below.

On a smaller note, Angela Bassett is wasted in the woefully underdeveloped role of Collins, the CIA section chief ostensibly in charge of FDR and Tuck. Obviously, Collins doesn’t monitor her employees very well.

On the other hand, Abigail Spencer makes the most of her brief scenes as Katie, Tuck’s estranged wife; young John Paul Ruttan is properly adorable as Joe, their son. The boy’s involvement in a martial arts class — dominated by another kid’s jerkwad parent — leads to an amusing payoff.

Rosemary Harris and George Touliatos also bring a bit of heart and emotional depth to these proceedings, as the grandparents who raised FDR after his parents were killed in a traffic accident. Harris effortlessly, charismatically conveys “elderly wisdom”; we all should be blessed with such a matriarch.

As for the leads, Pine plays FDR as a babe magnet who gets plenty of opportunity to flash his striking blue eyes. The role is a stereotype, of course, but Pine walks the fine line and keeps us on his side. Hardy’s Tuck is more of a genuine romantic, his feelings for Lauren more authentic and heartfelt from the start.

The irrepressibly perky Witherspoon puts some depth into her performance; it’s nice to see that Lauren is conflicted about this “crisis” of falling for two guys at the same time. And she fares far better here, than in recent rom-com misfires such as Four Christmases and How Do You Know.

Another sloppy detail, though: We’re repeatedly told that Lauren was a gymnast while in school, and yet there’s no absolutely no evidence of this. She treats the aforementioned paint ball skirmish with the timid delicacy of a “gurl” who couldn’t successfully navigate a ladder, let alone an obstacle course.

And that’s the way it goes, with this film: Its better elements, and moments, constantly are undercut by maladroit construction and an irritating inattention to detail. This Means War is a classic case of the whole being far less than the sum of several strong parts.

The title, as well, is rather feeble. Spy vs. Spy would have been much better, but I guess Mad Magazine’s Antonio Prohías had that sewn up. Too bad.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. All of these leads try their hardest, but the script just lets them down too much with terrible jokes and very ugly feeling underneath this premise. Check out my review when you get the chance.