The man called McG directs the high-concept rom-com action picture This Means War in a facetious, gut-whomping style that kills both the laughs and the thrills: It is not a distinguished addition to his oeuvre, which includes Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Sleek, gay-bar pinups Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play best-bud CIA agents competing for the hand of fair Reese Witherspoon, who strenuously vacillates between the ardent heartthrobs, scrunching up her face and showing off her curvy little twig of a body in low-cut, shorty dresses. The joke is that the lovelorn rivals exploit the Patriot Act and its attendant satellites, surveillance cameras, and slews of eager operatives to spy on the woman and each other — which might have been the springboard for an excellent civil-liberties satire of the last and (alas) current administrations if anyone involved had the wit or courage to get more real with it. One could imagine the heroine’s therapist waterboarded or her female confidante-cum-sex adviser shipped off to Guantánamo. As the latter is played by Chelsea Handler, this would amount to a genuine act of patriotism. Instead, the filmmakers have cobbled together a subplot featuring a mad German terrorist out to avenge his brother’s death, resulting in a handful of purposely over-the-top but fatally incoherent shoot-outs. McG has never learned the importance — in comedy and suspense as in music — of rests.
Going in, it seemed a sure bet that Hardy would lose the battle on height but win the lips competition in a walk — but either Pine has had injections or his lips have inflated in proportion to his ego. Throw these two in water and they’d float. Give them lines like these, however … Between stints as the new Captain Kirk, Pine flexes his Shatner-esque mugging muscles and achieves a state of total inauthenticity. But Hardy uses his patented poetic stupor as a force-field, protecting himself from jokes more bludgeoning than anything in Warrior. It’s a pity the writers have made him such a dewy, hangdog thing, mooning over his ex-wife (Abigail Spencer) and using his son to win points (with both the heroine and the audience) on sensitivity. At this juncture, he needs a juicy role in, say, something by his namesake Thomas. Imagine him in the Yorkshire moors going up against that other barrage-balloon-lipped force of nature Angelina Jolie as Eustacia Vye. A smooch with momentum would bounce them off opposite tree stumps.
The chief casualty of This Means War is Witherspoon, who doesn’t, on the evidence, understand her own strengths. When I caught her in Freeway on HBO in 1997, I was floored by that big, strong jaw on that skinny little person with that chirpy voice. She had gumption. Two years on, her Tracy Flick in Election was every inch the suburban-high-school Sammy Glick, anticipating the madly ambitious blonde stick-demons of Fox News. Her unflappable poise elevated even the lowbrow high jinks of Legally Blonde. But here, as in How Do You Know, Witherspoon wants to be loved for her dopiness and ditheriness, to telegraph her vulnerabilities in the manner of Mary Tyler Moore. Does she think that the female audience won’t bond with her if she seems too willful? This new, chick-flick persona doesn’t suit her and, on some level, she knows it, which is why she looks so determinedly discombobulated, so fiercely overcontrolled in her desire to appear helpless. Even in a genre this artificial, the phoniness shows.