Theoretically, McG‘s This Means War is a perfect twist on the romantic comedy. You’ve often got possible lovers fighting over one person, so why not have them be people who can actually fight? Reese Witherspoon [interview] stars as the girl stuck between two deep cover operatives (Tom Hardy, Chris Pine) in this surprisingly unpleasant riff on the cinematic romantic triangle.

The Players:

  • Director: McG
  • Writers: Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg
  • Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Til Schweiger, Angela Bassett
  • Music: Christophe Beck
  • Cinematography: Russell Carpenter

The Plot:

FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy) are two operatives for the government on the tail of Heinrich (Schweiger) when their attempted bust goes bad. They kill Heinrich’s brother but lose Heinrich. Forced to work their desks and find Heinrich, FDR convinces Tuck to join an online dating site. Tuck was once married (and has a kid), but he could never tell his ex that he was an agent, while FDR is simply a player who cycles through women. Enter Lauren (Witherspoon), a kitchen product safety tester and demonstrator, who – when she sees an ex with his new fiancee – worries she’s not in the game. Her best friend Trish (Handler) signs her up to an online dating site, and she and Tuck go out. But Tuck is worried that she’ll be weird, so FDR is supposed to spy on her, only to bump into her at a video store. And once the two men start dating her, they find out that they’re interested in the same woman and use all their government tricks to find out about her, even while Heinrich has sworn to kill them both.

The Good:

  • Attractive Leads: There’s no getting around that the three leads are attractive and interesting faces on screen, each with different appeals. Hardy is something of an oddball, but he plays well in the mainstream, and it’s nice to see him do something that’s against type. Pine plays the playboy, and he does it well, riffing on the “jerkish but actually cares” type he played well in Star Trek, while Witherspoon grounds the film with her turn as the cute girl surprised to be overwhelmed with options.
  • Playful: Though the film doesn’t always work, it does try to make itself into a fun romantic comedy, and there are moments when you buy that these people are on a date having fun. From time to time.

The Bad:

  • Chelsea Handler: As the comic relief, Handler is supposed to be the off-color friend, but so much of what she says is more offensive than interesting. Others have noted that the role would normally be played by a gay man, but here it’s like watching Carlos Mencia in The Heartbreak Kid, or a number of other high profile comic turns where there’s no real comedy from the supposed comedian.
  • Abuse of Government Powers: Much of the middle section of the film is dedicated to the two spies spying on Reese Witherspoon’s character. This is one of the central conceits of the film, and though it may be bad enough that the characters have to lie to her about their jobs, the idea that they are abusing the Patriot act to get to know the woman they’re dating is grotesque – especially since the film seems to imply that they are ignoring a terrorist threat to do so. Romantic comedies often feature behavior that might be consider creepy and stalker-ish in real life, but this is a situation that if the main characters were honest about what they did, the female lead should press charges.
  • Crap Writing: At the beginning, Witherspoon’s assistant mentions she wants to leave early to be with her boyfriend. Witherspoon then notes that she doesn’t have anyone. Then she runs into her ex-boyfriend and lies about having someone, and then runs into him at the sushi place she was going to. The latter part could be seen as a pay-off, but that’s three scenes in a row that tell you the exact same thing. Then Witherspoon has to have a conversation about this with Handler’s character. And in terms of who will eventually end up with who, the film gives itself a very easy out for one of the characters, so there’s no real tension in the triangle, and no sense of Witherspoon favoring one over the other until the reveal. It’s just a narrative hook, like Schweiger’s plot-point convenient terrorist.
  • Nitpick: Pine and Witherspoon meet in a video story (in 2012?), over a copy of the terrible remake of The Vanishing – which she was going to rent – and then Pine tells her to rent The Lady Vanishes, which is then critiqued as not being as good as Hitchcock’s later run (with a timeline that includes such films as Topaz and Family Plot). This isn’t a real complaint, but since none of the films they’re talking about comment on the plot, it just convinces me that these people have bad taste in films.

Overall:

Harmless, for sure, and bad in standard romantic comedy ways, so on that curve it’s not the worst thing. If the film thought about what it was saying or doing, it might be embarrassed. As it stands, star charisma only carries the film so far.

Rating: 5/10

This Means War hits theaters February 17.

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Trailer: