Monday, February 20, 2012

All's Fair: THIS MEANS WAR

In This Means War two government agents end up dating the same girl and decide to keep it up and let her pick the best man. It’s romance as competition, but it’s so much more than that. These guys throw the weight of the surveillance state behind their contest, each creating small taskforces to bug the poor woman’s house, car, and cell phone, hide miniature cameras here, there, and everywhere, to reroute unmanned drones, to hack into utilities’ networks, and to pull hardworking intelligence officers away from a case involving a nasty arms dealer attempting to cross illegally into the country to carry out revenge killings. None of this is as hilarious as anyone involved in the making of this movie thought it would be.

Reportedly festering in the bowels of the studio system since 1997, it’s finally been expunged onto theater screens in a version with a screenplay credited to Timothy Dowling and 20th Century Fox’s favorite script doctor Simon Kinberg. The whole thing feels stale and creepy without even a smidgen of charm. Of course, it doesn’t help that McG directs with monotonous thunks in the place of plot beats. There’s just no rhythm here, no essential spark of life. It’s also a strangely ugly movie; the lighting makes everyone look either sickly or as if they’re wearing pounds of makeup. All the while, the whole failed comedy gets pulled under by the flopping thriller inside it, compounding the problems.

On their own, the cast members are incredibly charming, or at least capable of it. The guys are played by Chris Pine (the new Captain Kirk) and Tom Hardy (the talented Brit who seems to be spending all of his time on film sets lately). They’re fighting over none other than Reese Witherspoon, no slouch in the charm department herself. But the charm just isn’t there. Setting aside the creepiness factor just for a moment (we’ll return to it, I promise), the plot is just so weirdly juvenile. Everyone involved in this love triangle are adults, and yet the movie makes them flail about like children in awkward social contortions. Don’t even get me started on poor Angela Bassett who is asked nothing more than to appear in a handful of scenes and scowl at everyone. This could be transposed into a high school comedy without sacrificing much. Teenagers would have less access to extralegal surveillance techniques, but that’s an aspect I’d be willing to lose.

Back to the creepiness, this is a deeply unsettling movie, all the more unsettling for being so glossy and watchable. These men are spying on the woman and the bulk of the movie has them listening in on her conversations with her best friend (Chelsea Handler). Then they set about tailoring their behavior on dates to fix flaws that she’s mentioned in these private conversations. One’s too slick, she says. He doesn’t seem to care about anyone but himself. Surprise, surprise, their next date, he takes her to an animal shelter to help him pick out a dog. The other’s too safe, she says. He doesn’t seem to be much of a risk-taker. Surprise, surprise, their next date is to play paintball. Of course, his secret agent skills come out and he runs roughshod over the mere combat amateurs, most of them children who leave the field limping. But, it all ends in the guy getting a paintball to the crotch so, ha ha, humor!

Poor Witherspoon is an unknowing pawn in their game which, despite all protestations from characters and filmmaking alike, has so very little to do with romance. This is a movie that’s so unbelievably smug that it mistakes smarm for charm. The movie’s sole sex scene is staged in such a way that we see none of the lovemaking and only the CIA operatives hunkered in a security bunker watching the couple. Who is supposed to find that scene appealing in the slightest? It’s not romantic, and it’s certainly not funny. It’s gross and demeaning to all involved.

I wasn’t delighted by this movie; I grew sad, and then just numb. It’s an implicit endorsement of the security state. At one moment a technician asks Pine if the spying they’re about to do “is legal.” Pine shrugs and says “Patriot Act.” Is that supposed to be funny? Later on, the fact that she’s under surveillance allows the guys to find her and save her in the action climax. So, see, it all works out, right? The movie is just stupid and thoughtless enough that I could completely believe that an endorsement of such reprehensible behavior is entirely accidental. 

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