There’s something I heard once. I don’t know if I read it in a review or heard it on a podcast but I think it’s pretty stock and trade among film critics – don’t put a good movie in the middle of your shitty movie. Early on in This Means War Chris Pine is riding an escalator down into a video rental store that’s too vast to be real these days and the camera pans to a scene from Young Frankenstein. At that moment I thought to myself, “Yikes it could be all downhill from here.” Well the good news is it wasn’t downhill. Unfortunately it wasn’t exactly uphill either. This Means War is a pretty standard half good movie. All the pieces are there for a well crafted, witty romantic comedy but they just don’t come together in the end. It’s not offensively bad, Transformers 3 taught me the true meaning of offensive filmmaking, but it’s not worth an $11 movie ticket either. It’s the kind of movie that’s entertaining enough but completely falls apart once you start to think about it too much. In the end, it’s a perfectly fine date night rental.
Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play FDR (yes, seriously) and Tuck (who thought Tuck would be the less ridiculous name in this pairing) who are CIA operatives, partners and best friends. FDR is the typical smooth operator, love em and leave em type and Tuck is the more sensitive nice guy who hasn’t really bonded with his son from his failed marriage and really just wants someone to come home to at the end of the day. Enter Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) who meets Tuck via an online dating site. They hit it off and all seems well until she meets FDR who she ends up falling for as well. Hilarity ensues as the partners abuse the government resources at their fingertips to spy on and sabotage one another in an effort to win the girl. Oh, and they also have to catch a European bad guy, Heinrich (his name really doesn’t matter) who’s out for revenge because they contributed to his brother’s death during a botched covert op that landed both FDR and Tuck on desk duty.
If this movie were a stage play you would think the actors had opening night jitters because it takes about the first 30 minutes for This Means War to get into any sort of groove. Lines and jokes end sort of awkwardly and the actors appear to have zero chemistry with one another. Things thankfully do pick up though once the pesky set up has been taken care of, Tuck and FDR realize they’re dating the same girl and decide they’ll compete for her affections. It’s at that point that Hardy seems to get most comfortable in his comedic role and becomes the stand out of the film. Hardy is arguable the best actor in the cast and as a result Tuck is way more human and three dimensional than Chris Pine’s FDR who is really a very one note, slick, smooth talker. As a matter of fact, FDR’s whole transformation into a mature guy who can be open with and let a girl in is carried out in a scene between his grandmother and Lauren. He’s not even there! We’re simply told as an audience that this is FDR’s damage, this is why he is the way he is and Lauren, you must be special to him because you’re the first girl he’s ever brought home. You should always show these things as opposed to telling them. And what’s worse, from that point on, Pine doesn’t play things any differently than he has the entire movie; he’s still more of a persona than a real person.
Once the competition begins, things move along at a clip and there are more than a handful of laugh out loud moments. The film is, as I said, entertaining enough and mostly coasts on the winning smiles of its three leads and the improv of Chelsea Handler, something that mostly works to the film’s benefit. Overall, however, the film is pretty dumb from a logic standpoint. When FDR and Tuck first start competing with one another their team of surveillance operatives keep asking what this has to do with the Heinrich case (remember him? The bad guy?). Eventually they must catch on that they’re actually participating in the misuse of government resources for what equates to a dick measuring contest between two high ranking CIA ops. But hey, they get to see Reese Witherspoon in her bra and panties so why not aid and abed? Then there’s that bad guy, what was his name again? He’s little more than a plot device, a convenient excuse to put Lauren and her beaus in danger and to remind us that Tuck and FDR are spies and not just over-competitive stalkers. Furthermore, looking at this from a romance standpoint, Tuck tries to connect to Lauren on an emotional level whereas FDR simply lies and tells her he magically likes all the things she does even going so far as to adopt a dog he seemingly doesn’t care about to win her favor. Given the film’s ending it’s a perplexing and damaging choice by screenwriter s Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg.
I know it sounds like I’m being a little harsh especially considering I said the film was half good. Ultimately it’s just a huge disappointment as someone who enjoys all of the actors involved and spy films. I thought this movie had the potential to be a really great modern romantic comedy. Unfortunately the parts are more than their sum. Hardy, as I said, really shines as not only the most well drawn character, but also the funniest and the most believable spy. I would really like to see him in better comedic vehicle. Handler is also a welcome addition to the cast as Lauren’s best friend Trish, though not all of her jokes work. Witherspoon is fine but in the end, mostly as a result of weak writing, becomes a one dimensional character on the level of FDR. And while we’re on the subject of the ending – woof –boy is it cheesy and clichéd. But despite the handful of flaws, some more egregious than others, the film is popcorn munching level entertainment. A harmless, if slight, way to spend a lazy Friday night curled up on the couch with your significant other.