The punchline to This Means War is that we like to be watched. In sex, in violence, we want everyone to step back and go 'whoa' as we remain impossibly smooth. The characters in this film watch themselves and watch those they profess to care deeply about, giving no reservations that those they're watching may not enjoy the invasion of their privacy. They have nothing important to hide; do you?
It's kind of an odd revelation for a film as wholly disjointed as this to be a comment in and of itself upon itself. On the surface it's a light comedy/action movie that makes Date Night look like North by Northwest. Beneath, a voyeuristic ode to everything that mainstream cinema entombs-- glamor, violence-- while demonstrating only surface level appreciation for both.
Take an early scene where Frank (Chris Pine) is attempting to pick-up Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). They're in a videostore discussing what movie he might recommend her. He picks The Lady Vanishes, and launches into an explanation as to why it's not only a good movie, but why it's a good movie to recommend (and, hey, I'd recommend it too). This is an attempt to establish a link between the two films-- both are charming romances with goofy situations and plenty of action.
But, of course, Hitchcock set his film on the intrigue of World War II, while This Means War's director McG only has the War on Terror to work with. He's taken our soundbite/endless covert war/ADD reality and created a mirror that tries to make it palatable in as sexy cinematic trappings as he can put together.
"Sir, I think there may be some Constitutional issues here."
[shrugs] "Patriot Act."
McG's version of the CIA is a lawless, reckless pair of guys who manipulate an all-male agency (except the female boss whose only purpose it to show up and be angry at their antics for a few scenes) and use it to kill dozens of people and spy on a women both male agents desire. These agents are the aforementioned Frank and Tuck (Tom Hardy), a pair of chums who find themselves split over Lauren. She likes them both, but can't pick one over the other.
Quick cuts, busty women, and the usual surface level polish that McG often brings to his visually and hopelessly kinetic films are on full display. You want a long tracking shot homage to Goodfellas? Eh, sure why not. What you're seeing is visceral, of the moment, the most unashamed id being splashed across the screen with a manic glee.
The end result? An empty cartoon. For a film that's intensely fascinated with the privacy and lack thereof in current American society, the amount of spice is surprisingly low. The actors, while nebulously charming, never seem to find identical points in the choppy script to play off of. Witherspoon, in particular, looks like someone has a gun to a cat barely offscreen most of the time, threatening her with its demise if she doesn't continue to cooperate.
But, again, I can't blame the actors too much, since it seems that this film has one of the sloppiest editing jobs I've ever encountered in a mainstream motion picture. Whether McG simply had no control over his actors or there were a lot of changes to the film made in post production, keep on the lookout for characters changing position mid-shot and mouths not syncing up with dialogue. Even better, watch were the editing is completely offbeat-- Tuck and Laren's first meeting, for instance, where some very obvious doubles are quickly cut away from.
(An astute film analyst may point out that these can be seen as intentional flaws to further heighten a sense of unreality that further mirrors the film's more voyeuristic ambitions in the YouTube era, but then you can also say that Reese Witherspoon is actually played twelve small men in a woman suit in this movie and that's equally valid at this point, so to each their own.)
I will admit, I did come into this film curious about how a film that sets up two likeable leading men and a likeable leading lady would play out in modern, action movie conventions. Would McG reach back a little further in his cinematic references and tap into a little Design for Living? Will the lady pick the bad boy redeemed or the romantic with a wounded heart?
Well, from those of us who made it through the film, we can sadly inform you that convention did not die this day. Without even Pine or Hardy tossing each other a casual peck on the cheek, the film instead hands all parties an easy way out. The protagonist who gets his heart broken gets an easy way out, with a spare woman in the wings just waiting to hop in at the end of act three. Even then it's revealed further that Lauren only implied coupling with one men, keeping her character safely in the 'nice girl' territory since the movie refuses to push any of the pro-feminist buttons it loudly intones. Not a surprise, but still kind of sad; no risk, This Means War, no reward.
So, lousy script, unexplored subtext, and an ending that feels like the air screaming out of a balloon. Am I missing anything?
Oh, yeah, one last thing. Witherspoon's character has a wacky best friend sidekick. As much as I love wacky best friend sidekicks in romantic comedies (which, outside of Rupert Everett and Donald O'Connor, I don't), this one is a tragic case of being a character so lifeless and painfully cliched that it's difficult to watch. Trish (Chelsea Handler) is a mom who's trying live vicariously through Lauren, but she's one of those mom's who drinks a lot and just talks about all the sex she wishes she was having. I guess dried up old mom is the new fat virgin dude.
Man, didn't think I was going to type that sentence tonight.
Regardless, I spent a great deal of Handler's time on screen wondering if she was acting terribly on purpose. The lines her character deals with sound like third rate Kristen Wiig shock jokes, and its awful since the film keeps focusing on these jokes for minutes on end with only a reaction shot from Witherspoon for a momentary relief. Perhaps Handler wanted us to feel her pain for being forced into such an unpleasant role. If so, uh, good job.
If I got really meta in this review, I apologize. There's a lot of interesting things you can read into about what privacy means nowadays, and how we as a country view ourselves. But that's bungled, in a package that feels like a a monstrosity of a film was jammed into a cage before being trotted out for the public. You're paying to see a facsimile of entertainment, not the real thing.