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This Means War is an utterly safe and frivolous bit of cinema. It seems like the kind of thing specifically designed to reassure the uptight high-income suburbanites who populate the MPAA ratings board that they have seen something edgy without actually violating their sense of wholesomeness. Its only two saving graces — they are both slim — are that it’s not entirely without laughs, and that beyond its premise it doesn’t presume that its thematic timidity is anything other than just that.

FDR Foster (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy) are two of the CIA’s top agents, each blessed with perfect physical reflexes and a superhuman capacity for deploying firearms. They’re also best friends, and adamant about their willingness to take a bullet for one another. In This Means War’s underdeveloped grammar, they express their camaraderie primarily by joining in the dispersal of large-scale destruction, enthusiastically but sloppily presented by director McG. There is also the regularity with which the earnest and dependable Tuck must salvage FDR, who operates with a boy’s conception of what constitutes a roguish ladies’ man.

Trouble ensues when the two discover that, through a fluke of random meets cute, they are both dating the same woman, a consumer products tester named Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). An initial gentleman’s agreement is formed, in which Tuck and FDR agree to stay out of each other’s way (and avoid taking things so far as sexual consummation), while allowing Lauren to choose her man on her own. But once each begins to fear the other is gaining ground, things degenerate into a mutual contest of sabotage and one-upsmanship, involving what must be blatantly illegal use of the kind of state-of-the-art equipment the CIA only has in the movies.

As for Lauren, she is attractive, poised, and well-spoken enough. The movie even attempts to give her a backstory, complete with a move to L.A. for the sake of a relationship that went bust, leaving the usual doubts and baggage in its wake. But the script gestures at these ideas more than truly embodying them in the storytelling, and Witherspoon’s performance never rises above the merely adequate. So despite Lauren’s self-actualizing decision to date two men at once, which provides much of the narrative’s driving force, she never really registers as a fully realized character.

Speaking of which, a braver, more emotionally honest film would acknowledge the inevitable interpersonal disintegration which is more or less baked into Lauren’s situation from the get-go. First, there is the unpleasant reality that adventurousness and enjoyment in the sexual realm can often come at the expense of other human beings. Second, Lauren finds herself facing an inescapable choice: one man or the other. Our culture is not one that provides the conceptual room or resources for polyamory, and most of us aren’t emotionally wired for it anyway, so that’s not in the cards. Lauren must pick one and reject the other, or somehow futz up the process and lose them both. This should force an examination of the inherent loss of possibility — and the inescapable risk of hurting others — that is part of any choice, no matter how appealing both options may be. The inevitable culling should also have consequences for Tuck and FDR’s friendship, as they’re forced to confront their fundamental differences when it comes to women and relationships.

Needless to say, This Means War is having none of that. It proceeds resolutely towards its happy ending for everyone: Tuck’s faith in commitment will be reaffirmed, FDR’s playboy ways will be mended, and Lauren will escape her predicament with Hollywood’s tenacious madonna-whore complex intact. While the presence of comedian Chelsea Handler as Lauren’s you-go-girl best friend is clearly intended to highlight the supposed cultural radicalism of Lauren’s dating habits, the movie is unwilling to truly take the plunge. Lauren herself never owns her behavior, remaining instead horrified by the situation, even as the film coyly suggests she may have slept with both men before nervously pulling back from the brink. In retrospect, This Means War actually tips its hand early on, setting up the convenient plot contrivances and emotional safety-net which will allow it to have its cake and eat it too.

As I said: Safe and frivolous, although still somewhat enjoyable. Pine and Hardy are both game for the movie, and deliver a respectable back-and-forth. But the whole thing comes off as vaguely insulting. By the end, the film’s dishonesty and disrespect for its audience’s intelligence left me detached and indifferent.

On a side note, the failure of This Means War to include the AC/DC song of the same name anywhere in its soundtrack seems like an especially egregious error.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsAqVvlR5DQ

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