Reese Witherspoon is one of Hollywood’s most talented actresses. Although some erroneously may think of her as being typecast in the role of a silly blonde because of her portrayal of Elle Woods in the two “Legally Blonde” films, she has proved her range and diversity in such films as “Election,” “Cruel Intentions,” “Water for Elephants,” and “Rendition.”
Then if you still have doubts, check her out in “Walk the Line,” the 2005 biopic of Johnny Cash starring Joaquin Phoenix as the legendary singer. Witherspoon deservedly won the Academy Award as best actress for her portrayal of June Carter because not only was her acting beyond superb, but she also did her own singing, and she sounded more like June Carter than June Carter.
So given her talent and her money (She commands between $15 and $20 million per film.), here’s what puzzles me about her: Why would she agree to appear in a film as stupid as “This Means War”? Although I can’t say that I have seen every film Witherspoon has made, I have watched the vast majority of them, and this is the first time I thought that her talent was completely wasted.
When “This Means War” begins, we meet Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foster (FDR for short) (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), who are best friends and partners in the CIA. Unfortunately they botch a covert operation and end up being “grounded” by their superiors. FDR is a ladies’ man, but despite Tuck’s good looks, he’s not as accomplished on the dating scene as is his buddy. And because he now has some down time, he decides to register his name with an online dating service.
Now let’s meet Lauren Scott (Witherspoon). Her job is to evaluate all types of new products for a publication somewhat like Consumer Reports. She is very knowledgeable about different kinds of appliances and gadgets, but she is not at all skilled in attracting men. Finally her best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler), decides it is high for Lauren to experience the joys of male companionship and puts a profile of her online. Naturally the site she chooses is the same one Tuck has registered with, and that is how Lauren and Tuck meet for a date. After the initial awkward moment, the two of them really hit it off and agree to see each other again.
After Lauren leaves the bar where they met, she wanders into a video store to pick out a movie for the evening, and here she meets FDR, who is immediately attracted to her. At first Lauren, who is looking forward to another date with Tuck, rejects FDR’s request for a date, but he proves to be so relentless that she finally agrees to go out with him. Now instead of having no men in her life, Lauren finds herself in the middle of two hunks.
In the meantime FDR and Tuck begin discussing a woman that they each recently have met and are shocked to learn that she is one in the same. Even though they are best friends, neither one of them wants to relinquish the pursuit of Lauren, and so they establish some rules and set out on separate missions to win her affection.
What ensues is a practically humorless and cliché-ridden film in which both FDR and Tuck act like a couple of teen-agers whose bodies and brains are in the throes of a massive hormonal overload. They resort to all kinds of tricks, including surveillance techniques, to try to get the upper hand, but both of them are so nauseatingly juvenile that I found myself hoping neither one of them would snare Lauren.
If you walk into the theater to see “This Means War,” and expect to be laughing out loud, you can forget it because the film simply does not contain any segments to induce chuckles. In fact, with the exception of a scene in which FDR attempts to convince Lauren that he is an expert in his knowledge about her favorite painter, I don’t remember cracking a smile.
Another problem with the film is the lack of chemistry between Witherspoon and each of her two costars. Both FDR and Tuck have a hot scene with Lauren, but in each case the scenes seemed awkwardly forced. In fact, her scenes in which she is alone with each of her suitors fall completely flat, and I’m not sure whether this is the fault of the actors, the director, the script, or all of the above.
The only positive element of film is Witherspoon’s presence because she is so consistently effervescent that she’s irresistible even in a bad film. In the production notes, she offered an analysis of her character.
“It’s every woman’s fantasy to have two unbelievably hot, sexy guys battling over you. Lauren doesn’t know that Tuck and FDR are secret agents for the CIA. ‘This Means War’ is almost like two different movies. My character is in a comedy, and Chris’ and Tom’s are in a big action film. At work, Lauren is the most decisive woman in the world, but in her personal life, she’s very indecisive. I think a lot of people can relate to her feeling of, ‘Am I picking the right guy for me.'”
Also in the production notes Pine provided some interesting insight to both FDR and Tuck.
“FDR is a consumer of all things – of fine whiskey, good cigars, nice suits, fast cars, and beautiful ladies. Not necessarily in that order. He enjoys being a spy. He’s the guy who would have watched James Bond movies as a kid and said, ‘I want to do that.’ There’s not a lot of brooding or complication in FDR’s life. Tuck, however, comes from a more serious school of espionage. Tuck is complicated, interesting, and internal. He’s the spy existentialist while FDR enjoys the bacchanalian universe of being a spy.”
The bottom line is that “This Means War” is the kind of sub-mediocre film we can expect this time of year. Take Witherspoon out of the equation, and you have a film that is close to a zero. Put her back in, and the film gets its final score of five simply because Reese is Reese. But even her consistently delightful personality wasn’t enough to keep the makers of this film from losing both the battle and the war.