Two of the world’s top secret agents are best friends who never let anything come between them -- until they inadvertently fall for the same woman.
Perhaps it started with George Clooney and Brad Pitt trying to out-cool each other in Ocean’s Eleven, or with the improvisation in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there now seems a glut of films that attempt to employ quick-witted, seemingly off-the-cuff dialogue – and it’s beginning to grate. An idea has surely gone full-circle into self-parody by the time Sylvester Stallone has had a go (as he did to unintentionally hilarious effect in The Expendables).
That Hollywood will keep repeating the same trick until someone thinks of a better idea is nothing new, but neither is the obvious fact that for dialogue to really fizz on screen, the cast needs charisma, chemistry and a good script. Everything a decent flick should have, essentially, and everything this pointless spy comedy lacks.
FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are the best of friends. Divorced Tuck has a kid, bachelor FDR is an arrogant womaniser. They work together at the CIA as spies, sitting opposite each other at their desks engaging in one-upmanship banter that leads to them competing for the affections of the same woman. We know they are best friends because they keep saying to each other “you’re my best friend,” with big, dead-behind-the-eyes grins on their faces. There are better lessons on chemistry in the bible.
Being spies gives these macho BFFs the flimsy excuse to competitively perv on the every move of Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), who has no idea the two men she is dating know each other. The film seems to think it is pushing boundaries by putting a female character in a position of power in the dating game over two men, but the unavoidable contradiction is that Lauren is a dull character who leaves two male characters centre-stage to fight over the few comedy scraps going. Legally Blonde showed Witherspoon could be both funny and a lead, but a decade on her role here feels like a backward step.
But while Witherspoon again undermines her status as an Oscar winner and Hardy struts about the place like the lovechild of Kevin Costner and Christian from Eastenders, you know they’ve got more in them. What makes the film hateable rather than simply forgettable is FDR. It’s hard to root for any character played by someone as smarmy as Chris Pine; both his hair and acting as wooden and unmoving as his surname. Yet I think we’re expected to here. I think. Like most things in this film, intentions are a little unclear.
Confusingly, This Means War sometimes doesn’t even bother to try and be a comedy. “Wow, that’s beautiful,” gasps Lauren in one scene. Cut to the inside of a dark, empty circus tent where Tuck has taken her for a date. Beautiful? Upon seeing the inside of a tent, teenagers looking for romance at a music festival might at best think ‘this’ll do,’ yet here we have Witherspoon doing her best Enthusiastic & Impressed Face. Cue a surreal cavorting sequence on a trapeze with utter disregard for safety, followed by a romantic kiss on the net below – surreal because director Joseph McGinty Nichol plays the scene entirely straight. You can’t help but wish the Farrelly brothers, Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller were on-hand to mine some comic worth from this, which highlights the film’s basic problem – it doesn’t work nearly hard enough for laughs, yet has no idea how to pull on heart-strings to fill the gaping void.
Memorable comedies boast likeable characters, interesting ideas, wit and timing. Passable comedies have at least one of these components. This Means War has none.