Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Guest Review: This Means War (2012)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

February is, among other things, the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, and it occurred to me that Romantic Comedies rarely get much mention around here. Often referred to as rom coms, date movies, and chick flicks (though the latter two likely encompass a slightly larger category), the last one I can remember seeing was a vehicle for one of the current leading practitioners of the genre, Reese Witherspoon, as well as the up and coming young star Chris Pine. The film was received poorly by the critics, but scored somewhat higher with audiences. I won’t pretend its good, but am closer to the audience reaction than the critics. Let’s review some of the strengths and weaknesses of this production, and consider what characteristics most likely impact whether a romantic comedy hits or misses.

** spoiler alert **

Plot Synopsis - In the opening sequence, we find two CIA operatives, “FDR” Foster, (Pine) and “Tuck” Hansen (Tom Hardy), on assignment high atop a skyscraper in Hong Kong. Their mission is to stop the sale of a “MacGuffin” like secret weapon to the North Koreans, apprehend the seller, international arms dealer Karl Heinrich (Til Schweiger) and obtain the “weapon.” The parameter of the mission requires it remain strictly covert. The sale is broken up, the money scattered to the winds, and the “weapon” falls off the roof of the skyscraper (never to be mentioned again.) Heinrich’s younger brother is killed, but Heinrich himself escapes and vows vengeance against FDR and Tuck who are placed on “inside” status as a result.

Back in L.A. we are introduced to Lauren Scott (Witherspoon) who is chief product tester at Smart Consumer, Inc. a fictional “Consumer Reports” type company. While out walking, she runs into her ex-boyfriend who induced her to move from Atlanta. He introduces her to his new fiancee, so Lauren pretends she is meeting her (fictitious) new guy for dinner. When they later stumble across Lauren dining alone at a sushi bar, she is humiliated. Lauren’s best friend (Chelsea Handler) decides to sign her up with an on-line dating service (it’sfate.net) without her knowledge.

It turns out FDR is quite the ladies man around town, while Tuck is separated from his wife (Abigail Spencer) and seven year old son. Tuck is never home, and his “cover” is that he is a travel agent who actually travels all the time. The double “meet cute” goes down like this. Tuck happens to sign up for the same dating service and gets paired up with Lauren. F.D.R. insists he hang out nearby for their first meeting at a sidewalk cafe, so he can “coach” Tuck. Lauren and Tuck hit it off exceedingly well, and he promises to call her for a date. Lauren happens to stop by a video store around the corner, from where FDR was stationed to “help” if needed. FDR hits on Lauren who quickly sizes him up as a horn dog, and blows him off, but he uses CIA resources to find out who she is. He attends her focus group product testing the next day, and bullies her into a date for that night. Soon after the date begins, Lauren leaves, but again runs into her “ex” and his fiancee, and begs FDR to pretend to be her boy friend. He agrees, but demands an explanation, then takes her for pizza, where she begins to see him in a different light. Tuck and FDR quickly learn they are interested in the same lady, and the “war” begins.

They agree they will “compete” for Lauren and set up ground rules that they will not let her know they are best friends, will not spy nor interfere with each other, and that neither will sleep with her unless and until and she chooses one over the other. Naturally, the competition escalates, and their friendship is strained to the breaking point. Lauren, of course, really cares for both of them, and much of the remainder of the movie is devoted to determining which one she will choose, and includes both of their numerous and humorous attempts to screw up each other’s overtures to Lauren using the best technology the CIA has to offer. Lurking in the background, naturally, is the villainous Heinrich who quickly tracks down the two agents who killed his brother, and is ready for payback.
So What Does or Doesn’t Work?

The story takes a fairly traditional rom com storyline, and pairs it with an action/adventure super spy genre for, hopefully, a fresh approach. The two operatives are clearly more from the Ethan Hunt Mission Impossible School of super agents. Both the opening and closing sequences are complete with slow motion floor slides with automatic pistols blazing or back flips while tossing a spare clip to one’s partner. This is a big budget production, so the effects are just what one might expect. The question is, whether we have seen so much of this kind of scene, it no longer seems particularly special. This all leads to characters and premises to which calling them unrealistic would be an understatement. On the other hand, if one realizes it is a rom com parodying action/adventure, it doesn’t seem quite so lame. Plausibility is not always mandatory in this genre.

The second issue is quality of jokes and laugh-lines. To be honest, I am somewhat split on that issue when it comes to this film. Many of the lines (Reese stating she doesn’t want to end up as some mad man’s “skin suit” or FDR’s denigrating women who sign-up for on-line dating by stating “half of them pee standing up”) are just dreadful. This kind of dialogue is sophomoric to be charitable, and makes me wonder how these particular screen writers sleep at night. At the same time, many of the devices used by FDR and Tuck to mess up the other guy’s dates are genuinely hilarious. In particular, there is a scene where FDR kidnaps a group of actors hired by Tuck to portray his family, and replaces them with his own set of impostors that truly is laugh out loud funny.
The third, and possibly most critical, aspect of a successful rom com is CHEMISTRY between the principles! Bogart or Tracy and Hepburn; Doris Day and Rock Hudson; Julia Roberts and Richard Gere; Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan all had that certain something that made audiences root for the couple to overcome the obstacles and get together (or back together.) Sadly, the chemistry between Witherspoon and Pine is nothing special. But, this is a threesome, and part of the set-up is to keep the viewer guessing which one Lauren will choose. Maybe, just maybe, the actors did a better job than we initially realize given that particular aspect of the script. I will also admit to being a long time fan of Reese Witherspoon. As such I’ve seen most of her films, many of which don’t match up to her skill. I’ve enjoyed watching how she works with lesser material, and believe she almost always makes the most of any acting situation, even one that is less than great. There is ample opportunity to see that at play here.

The Verdict - Everyone, at times, sees a romantic comedy. It is generally a lighthearted affair, meant to be fun, and not at all taken too seriously. This is not anywhere near the best of the genre, but is enough good to proudly proclaim “it doesn’t suck as much as Roger Ebert claims!" If you miss this, rest assured you can still sleep soundly knowing so. But if you are a rom com fan, or a Reese Witherspoon fan, or your date is either of those things; you can probably view it, get through it, and even enjoy several laughs along the way.

35 comments:

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for the review. I've seen this twice now and I have to say that I got a kick out of it. Was it great? No. But it has it's moments. It's the kind of movie you can watch and just kind of enjoy without ever using your brain.

And I love the paintball scene -- that was funny.

K said...

This kind of dialogue is sophomoric to be charitable, and makes me wonder how these particular screen writers sleep at night.

Probably on pillows stuffed with the money they got from owning part of the gross. Minus the cut their producer uncle picked up for getting them the job. :)

I can see the movie's concept was well thought out though. Basically a chick flick with two guys fighting over a single woman with enough action frosting on the cake to keep the guys who got dragged into the theater by their girl friends from committing seppuku prior to the ending credits.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew, I didn't like this much the first time through, but upon a re-screening didn't feel nearly so negative about it.

"K" that's pretty much it. "on pillows stuffed with money" l.o.l. It's fluff, but there are a lot of good scenes. It's a natural genre for Reese, but I'm not so sure it's really Chris Pine's element.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I went in expecting nothing to like at all, so maybe my lack of positive expectations helped? Admittedly, this is a stupid movie with bad dialog and a total lack of believability, but I found it entertaining. Would I recommend it? No, but I don't regret watching it.

Tennessee Jed said...

that is pretty much where I came out. I don't mind the occasional chick flick, and am enough of a romantic that I can actually enjoy the better ones. As K points out, unless we are hermits, we all see movies of this genre from time to time. You could do a lot worse than to rent this one, and nobody has to walk out

ScottDS said...

I haven't seen this yet but it's been on my radar. I was sad to see it didn't make tons of money ($50-something million, which doesn't cover the budget), especially since Reese Whitherspoon hasn't had a hit in a while. On the other hand, an actor like Tom Hardy will always be working and Chris Pine at least has Star Trek, though that's more of an ensemble.

There was an article published recently on The Atlantic's website about the state of the modern romantic comedy and why so many of them are awful.

A few thoughts from the article:

-the stars who would ordinarily be associated with romantic comedies are either on TV or doing superhero flicks (which is why someone like Katherine Heigl is left to pick up the slack)

-obstacles are harder to come by and things like parental disapproval or class differences don't matter as much as they used to

-premarital sex is no longer the bugaboo it once was: There was a time when carnal knowledge was the (implied) endpoint of the romantic comedy; today, it’s just as likely to be the opening premise.

rlaWTX said...

This one was pretty enjoyable. My brother & I ended up in it accidentally. Upon leaving, he admitted that it wasn't a total waste of time...
I enjoyed it. Although, I have to agree that the chemistry between the girl and the guys wasn't that strong - but the chemistry between the spy partners was pretty great.

One of the things I found interesting about this movie was the advertising (we discussed this on another thread after it came out). The ads showcased a sleazy side of the movie that never actually appeared IN the movie. All of Chelsea's one-liners were taken out of context and Reese's dual relationship was made to sound more slutty. When I saw the movie, I was pleasantly surprised by what was really portrayed. I'm not sure why the ads took that direction, but it was interesting...

ScottDS said...

rla -

Movie marketing is an art in and of itself and from what I've read over the years, very few directors get final say in those matters. A shame, really...

Not only are movies test-screened nowadays, but trailers and TV spots, too.

tryanmax said...

This is in my cue, so maybe it just bumped to the top. Sounds worthwhile. I heard rumor that this script was the remains of a Spy vs. Spy script that didn't pan out, thought that could just as likely be a reverse-speculation based on the promo materials.

I gotta say, riffs against online dating just seem out-of-date at this point in time, so maybe that's why those particular jokes fell flat. Beyond that, I don't have a lot of insights as to what makes a rom-com work or not. It's not that I don't go in for rom-coms at all, but I don't seem to go in for the popular ones. :-/

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - "I haven't seen this yet, but it's been on my radar" Ha! l.o.l. That sounds like the panelists saying "great choices everyone" or the best actress oscar winner's saying, "I'm so honored just to mentioned with all the rest of these inspiring women." :) My point is this. I wouldn't seek this film out just to see it. I would say, on a night when a rom com is called for, see this rather than a 4th viewing of "you've Got Mail."

I do think your points from the Atlantic are interesting and right on the money. Reese is right about that age where actresses begin to lose their top dog status, despite Drudge's headline about 73 being the new 30. We can see how desperate Julia Roberts began to get.

Tennessee Jed said...

BTW is anybody else having to prove they are not a "bot" every time you try and post a comment?

Tennessee Jed said...

RLA - that is a neat observation. I didn't remember the marketing since my wife and I normally pick up a copy of most movies featuring Reese. She may be the next actress do decide she will get better scripts doing television, particularly the kind that do 8 episodes a year.

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - I often go to Wikipedia for fims I review to get the theatrical poster, and get data about release date,box office and critical reception. Since I never had reviewed a rom com, I actually read Wiki's articles about their history, etc. and found the article to be both interesting and informative. I do think this reminded me that as a grandfather with teen age grand daughters, I probably have become more of an old curmudgeon about things like pre-marital sex being the new "normal." I swear, we sometimes seem like we are in the decline of Rome ;)

ScottDS said...

Jed -

No "bot" problems here.

And yes, this movie had been on my radar*, because I'm a guy and it might be worth it for the spy/tech stuff. (I may be a film school grad but I'm also pretty easy to please!)

I've actually never seen You've Got Mail, or Sleepless in Seattle for that matter. But as Hanks/Ryan movies go, I'm in that small cult that loves Joe Versus the Volcano. :-)

A future article on rom coms might be in order - it used to be a pretty reliable genre, a license to print money. Not so much nowadays.

*I only tell the truth on this blog. There are plenty of movies conered here I've never seen, or ones I have no interest in watching.

And I've stopped complimenting everyone on their debate choices - now I simply address each one individually. :-)

ScottDS said...

^That should be "covered," not "conered."

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott - thanks for the Atlantic link. Don't know if we need to do a genre article here. That one seems to cover things really well!

Koshcat said...

I'm generally not a rom-com fan. Many times they can start off enjoyable but then the endings seem to be made up on the spot and very predictable. Most of those I have enjoyed generally have had something else in the story that I found interesting. For example, True Lies or Jerry Mcguire. The last rom-com my wife and I saw was Couple Retreat. Not a great movie but very funny at times. -"Now it's party

Koshcat said...

I just got roboted.

AndrewPrice said...

Roboted?

AndrewPrice said...

Sorry, I just turned the word verification off again. We've been under spam attack periodically.

tryanmax said...

Mmmm, spam attack! A barrage of deliciousness. :-P

Koshcat said...

mmmmm, spam with pinapple

Tennessee Jed said...

I was able to comment, but every time I tried to publish, it makes me "prove" I'm not a robot by reading some hard to read word number combinations.

Koshcat - yeah, I think that is an excellent observation. A rom-com is going to be predictable so what makes one more enjoyable than another usually comes down to a different slant or story, the chemistry of the lead actors, and again, the quality of the jokes. I have to admit, when done well, I can be a romantic. When Hanks asked Ryan to forgive him for a little thing like putting her out of business, it was pretty cool. In this one, the spy genre aspect was meant to be the catch, and while the special effects were quite good, when you see Mission Impossible or Skyfall, they don't seem anything speial. But it did set up a scenario to do some cute gags where the two friends each use technology to screw over the other.

Tennessee Jed said...

spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spammity spam!

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I turned that off again. We haven't been getting spam attack during the day. But we did get over 2,000 comments now in the past couple nights.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott, btw, you may have decided to no longer compliment all the film debate choices, but I certainly have not stopped feeling the total need to kid you to the maximum possible extent permitted by law. The issue is you are young, we are old. It's what we do, and we do it affectionately ;)

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - wow! Can they tell you if they come from overseas or not? BTW, things are working fine. It was after midnight last night when I tried to post, and earlier this morning. Plus, I was having local network connectivity problems late last night, so I thought maybe it had something to with that.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Sometimes, but not this time. These one isn't leave a footprint at all, except for the comments they're trying to post. And since I through up the word verification they seem to have stopped.

Koshcat said...

A few years ago I read a piece by Glenn Beck (Hold on Andrew *ducking behind desk* I'm on topic) and he separated movies in bonnet movies and Laser movies. Women like the former, guys like the latter. Wives often want you to watch the bonnet movie but then about half way through they fall asleep forcing you to finish the movie and let them know if they missed anything. The perfect movie was one that started out as a bonnet movie and just as the wife fell asleep it turned into a laser movie (especially if the ladies in the bonnet switch to something more risqué).

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, LOL! You might be onto something. Could you imagine a movie which made a total dramatic switch somewhere at the halfway point?

Tennessee Jed said...

Kosh - how about this. Two students "meet cute" while doing research at the Wellesley law library. They fall for each other, but problematically, she is not only bi-sexual (with a kind of crush on Hillary) and to top it off, she is 128th part Cherokee and a huge liberal, while he is a "straight" libertarian. When your date falls asleep, we find he has enlisted in Army's Delta Force!!! What do you think??

Koshcat said...

The closest I can think of is The Deer Hunter.

Backthrow said...

SOMETHING WILD (1986), with Jeff Daniels and Melanie Griffith, did sort of a radical dramatic twist halfway through; in fact, it starts out as quirky rom-com/road trip type of story, but then when they attend her high school reunion...

Tennessee Jed said...

Backthrow - That seems like a title I should remember, but apparently it got me. 1986 was a tough year for me, though so maybe not all that surprising.

rlaWTX said...

When I was married, I never fell asleep halfway through a rom-com after insisting that my ex watch the rest! Andrew, I'll help you throw things at Koshcat!! ;)

"Sleepless in Seattle" - eh.
"An Affair to Remember" - excellent

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