It’s impossible to ignore the relevance of Reese Witherspoon’s profession in This Means War. Her character, an especially Witherspoonian blonde named Lauren Scott, is a consumer-products tester whose workplace looks like a scrumdiddlyumptious torture chamber. Neon-handled Teflon pans are blasted with flamethrowers in a tangerine lab, while a focus group of concerned housewives discusses charcoal grills in a polka-dot boardroom.
Before long, it hits you like a skillet to the face: How many times did this love-triangle action comedy go through similar rounds of quality control? How many focus groups gave it the once-over before it got the green light? Considering its multiple endings, spastic construction, odd romantic outcomes, and bizarrely dated snippets, it’s safe to assume the punchy product arriving in theaters is a few generations removed from Simon Kinberg and Timothy Dowling’s original script, which was once called Spy vs. Spy and had Sam Worthington and Bradley Cooper attached to star. The tailored result features Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, who play a pair of C.I.A. BFFs forced to lock horns when Lauren cozies up with both. The good news is that all involved are buffed to impossible perfection, to the extent that a speck of food in Witherspoon’s teeth looks like a stain on the celluloid. The bad news is that a glossy finish isn’t enough to pass inspection.
When he resurrected Charlie’s Angels (and when he resurrected Demi Moore in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), McG announced himself as a director hyper-obsessed with absurdly saturated colors, his aesthetic a bit like Powell and Pressburger’s pressed through a pixie stick. And so it is that every blue-eyed, pink-lipped principal in This Means War looks fresh from the rainbow, their blinding clothes and accessories livening up the L.A. streets, and every hair on their heads kissed by drops of golden sun (Hardy, in particular, has never looked dreamier, his perpetual pucker and glistening stubble adding up to a distinctive heartthrob, both beastly and effeminate). It’s an intentionally forced color scheme that McG tackles well; however, it’s also part of a cheap distraction used to cloak his formal shortcomings. For an action director, the artist formerly known as Joseph McGinty Nichol can’t direct an action sequence to save his life. The opening rooftop shootout, wherein our dueling spies, Tuck (Hardy) and FDR (Pine), battle the henchman of a token Euro terrorist (Til Schweiger), is as poorly orchestrated and photographed a set piece as any in recent memory, subscribing to the notion that so long as the bullets are flying and the music is blaring, no one will care to notice all the artlessness on display.
It’d be wrong to discount the ample humor the movie boasts, including all the spy-game one-upmanship that gives the cast members a chance to earn their paychecks. Watching their “gentlemen’s agreement” to date the same girl—who doesn’t know her beaus are bros—spiral into a battle of cock-blocking espionage, Tuck and FDR use tools at their disposal to stalk each other while also tracking bad guys, letting the story toggle between thug interrogations and competitive romantic outings, like a hilarious paintball session that sees Tuck scare the skinny jeans off a bunch of innocent teenagers, just to prove to Lauren that he’s not “too safe.” Through it all, the action is punctuated by none other than Chelsea Handler, who plays
herself Lauren’s best friend, an incessantly horny wife and mother on hand to give Lauren pointers and shout vulgarities in family establishments. Handler lands every zinger with her virtuoso comic timing, especially when it comes to convincing Lauren that her field-playing is good for feminism (“Get in there!” she presses. “Do you think Gloria Steinem sat in jail so you could be a little bitch?”).
But Handler also gets a bogus, fleeting glimmer of sentimental humanizing, and her mismanaged part is in line with how insufficiently acquainted this movie is with its own characters. FDR, for example (who also goes by Franklin), is touted as a womanizer to rival Michael Fassbender, when in truth a softer ladykiller has likely never hit the screen. Few will miss that FDR is actually super gay for Tuck, a narrative that goes beyond your usual bromance subtext, only to be inevitably dismissed. Tuck is shown to have an ex-gal and a son, and the meaning of those relationships is sloppily, flippantly handled, clashing with how the love triangle snaps together. It all leads to Lauren suffering a disservice, too, as she’s ultimately saddled with the wrong man in a botched attempt to have all characters be saved from themselves. At the risk of taking the heat off the filmmakers, let’s speculate that those supposed focus groups are top on the blame list, their tweaks and objections resulting in a please-all patchwork that really pleases no one. This Means War seems so concerned with being the best product, it doesn’t even know how to be good trash.