It has taken decades of watching and writing about movies, but This Means War might have finally helped me articulate what feels like a fundamental rule about would-be escapist entertainment: The more preposterous the situation at the center, the more genuine the characters need to be.
Suspension of disbelief is a fundamental requirement for any fantastic tale—cinematic or otherwise—but that disbelief needs to be suspended from something. And that something is almost always the characters at the center. You only find yourself sneering, “Yeah, right,” when the filmmakers have given you no reason to believe that there’s anything at stake. There is no more fertile breeding ground for incredulity than an empty hole where a protagonist should be.
There’s no inherent reason why the premise for The Means War couldn’t have generated a thoroughly entertaining “something for everyone” movie—a romantic-action-comedy with a heart. The setup finds CIA field agents Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) as work partners and off-work best friends, stuck behind desks after an assignment goes bad. With extra time to kill, the sensitive Tuck starts pondering his lackluster romantic life, and tries out an online dating-site meet-up with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). Soon thereafter, right around the corner in a video store, ladies’ man FDR meets a hot babe who catches his eye—and son of a gun if it’s not Lauren. When the two pals figure out that they’re interested in the same woman, they both set out to win her over—using all the professional and technological resources at their disposal if need be.
Co-screenwriter Simon Kinberg worked wonders with a similar “romantic entanglements go high-tech” concept in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, so either he had a load of crap to begin with in this story by Timothy Dowling and Marcus Gautesen, or he completely forgot how to anchor a story in the real world. There are a few token moments to establish some light-hearted one-upmanship between Tuck and FDR, but virtually nothing to indicate why such an intense rivalry would suddenly emerge between two apparently inseparable bros. The film introduces Tuck’s separation from his wife (Abigail Spencer) and young son (John Paul Ruttan), and a childhood tragedy that apparently contributes to FDR’s one-night-only womanizing ways. But without a firm grasp on who these guys are and what they want, there’s nothing here but the gimmick that finds them using satellites and gadgetry to thwart one another and figure out shortcuts to Lauren’s heart.
Yet they still make more sense than Lauren herself, whose erratic personality shifts suggest she should be under surveillance for more traditional reasons. Is she the anxious, solitary basket case who freaks out when she sees her ex-boyfriend on the street with his new fiancee? Or is she the cocky, self-assured woman who parries every FDR come-on in that video store with saucy banter? When the time comes for Lauren to make her difficult torn-between-two-lovers, acting-like-a-fool choice, might it have been possible for her selection to advance her character arc in some way, instead of feeling like the result of a coin flip? Witherspoon can be an appealing comedic performer, but Lauren isn’t merely unsympathetic; she practically doesn’t exist except as a trophy.
There are stretches—not the ones that in any way involve the vengeance-seeking crime boss (Til Schweiger) who pointlessly raises the stakes—when This Means War works on a purely superficial level. Chelsea Handler capably negotiates the role of the Lauren’s dirty-mouthed best friend to deliver the biggest laugh lines, and some of the gags built around the agents’ escalating war of woo sneak in for a score. But, in general, director McG’s (Charlie’s Angels) film just barrels ahead, not truly exciting enough to work as a thrill ride, nor funny enough to work as a simple comedy. It has to find something human in this chaotic triangle—like the perils of keeping parts of yourself secret from the people you claim to love, as Mr. & Mrs. Smith did so effectively between gunshots—and it never does. The problem isn’t that it’s a movie where people find themselves in wild situations; the problem is that the wild situations don’t actually involve anything that feels like a person.
THIS MEANS WAR
Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy
Thu., Nov. 20, 7 p.m. / Free