Early on in This Means War comes one of the most dispiriting scenes ever witnessed in a movie theater: A couple (Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine) meets cute at a video store, and the boy charms the girl with his deep knowledge of this obscure director named … Alfred Hitchcock.
But then the girl cleverly turns the tables on the boy! Because she knows about Hitchcock too! Ha! Isn’t that adorable? I know, I know: There are at least two generations of moviegoers who may have never seen a Hitchcock film or know Psycho from Marnie. But Witherspoon is playing an executive for a product-testing research company, and Pine is playing a CIA agent. There’s nothing funny or clever about two presumably educated, intelligent adults being aware of Alfred Hitchcock. It is a weak, lazy, uninspired gag. That goes for the rest of the movie, too.
This Means War is an attempt by director McG to blend two popular genres — the chick flick and the shoot-’em-up — into one gargantuan epic date movie. Except he gets neither of the halves right. The action, which bookends the movie, is atrocious, defying all laws of gravity and physics and machine gun-edited into incomprehensible lunacy. If you ever happen to find yourself in a situation where you have no other choice but to watch This Means War — while on an 18-hour flight, perhaps, or being tortured at Guantanamo Bay — pay close attention to what the bad guy does during the climactic car chase and explain to me how that makes even a tiny bit of sense, even in a cartoon such as this one.
The other half of This Means War, the one that takes up most of the movie, follows the rivalry between two best friends and fellow CIA agents (Pine and Hardy) after they fall for the same woman (Witherspoon). Why is a knockout like Witherspoon still single yet reluctant to go out on dates? Because she’s afraid of serial killers. Why does she intentionally start dating two guys at the same time? Because she can’t make up her mind. On her first date with Hardy, he takes her to a mysteriously abandoned circus, where they climb onto the trapeze and perform a little routine. But Pine, on their date, takes her to this warehouse in which he just happens to have all these original paintings by Gustav Klimt, her favorite artist. How can she possibly pick between them?
Anyone else might be a little curious as to how you just happen to have an art collection worth several hundreds of millions of dollars lying around. But not Witherspoon, because all the characters in This Means War are required to be idiots in order for the movie to proceed. Romantic comedies require a sizable suspension of disbelief — they’re wish-fulfillment fantasies — but This Means War is so preposterous, it’s insulting. What are we to make of that woman in a bikini who swims in the glass-bottomed pool that forms the roof of Pine’s apartment? Who lives beneath a glass-bottomed pool, anyway? Wouldn’t you be constantly looking up and worrying it was going to break?
Charlie’s Angels, McG’s first film, did a nice job of balancing absurdist humor and ridiculous action: The movie was a goof, but a pleasant one, and easy to go along with. This Means War is just as irreverent, but without the whimsy or charm. The three extremely charismatic leads are capable of making you smile when the director cedes the spotlight to them, such as the shot in which a horrified Witherspoon, halfway through a date, discovers she’s had a bit of food stuck to her teeth all this time. But these actors are too smart to play things this dumb, and McG’s meaningless camera antics (such as a ridiculous homage to GoodFellas) lack a punchline: They’re style for style’s sake.
This Means War isn’t a blight on humanity like The Ugly Truth or Jack and Jill. But the film is vulgar and off-putting and insulting, a procession of illogical happenings and product placements (every movie that appears on TV screens in the film happens to be owned by distributor 20th Century Fox). It’s a date movie for suckers.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Til Schweiger, Chelsea Handler.
Screenwriters: Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg.
Producers: Simon Kinberg, James Lassiter, Robert Simmonds.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 98 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday Feb. 17 at area theaters.