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MOVIE REVIEW

This Means War

‘This Means’ trouble for Witherspoon and women

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / February 17, 2012
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You can imagine how the ball got rolling on “This Means War.’’ You can also imagine how the folks who rolled the ball started to lose their minds. What if a woman was dating two guys? What if the two guys were friends? What if the friends were also co-workers? What if the co-workers were CIA spies? What if the spies started doing their work on each other? What if that work culminated with combat at a Los Angeles restaurant while the woman is talking to herself in the ladies room only to return to an obliterated dining room? What if she stood amid all the smoking destruction and was upset only that the two lovers/friends/spies lied to her? What if the case the spies had been working on, were then fired from, and then put back on had blasted its way into the romance plot? What if people paid to see this?!

“This Means War’’ is a romantic comedy whose DNA consists of other movies, television action shows, sitcoms, and comic strips. It’s got both a soap opera plotline and a Chuck Norris-load of taxpayer-financed gadgets and gear. It also has Reese Witherspoon in another terrible part. Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play the dates, and anything even passably fun that happens here happens between them - the banter, the arguments, the hurt feelings, the time in close quarters, the declarations of fidelity, betrayal, and love. Part of the deal with Witherspoon’s character, Lauren, is that neither man can sleep with her until she’s made her final choice, which means, once again, sexual chastity is a greater movie virtue than civility on the highways and in the restaurants of Los Angeles. You can blow up the world but, for the love of June Carter Cash, don’t touch Reese Witherspoon.

Pine is tall, boldly coiffed, and cocky. Hardy, who’s English, is compact, tattooed, and sensitive. They both have nice chests and sofa cushions for lips. They’re such good foils for each other that it takes only the opening action sequence to realize that, once she arrives, Witherspoon will be as much of a gadget as all the tranquilizer darts and flying drones.

The screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who shares a credit with Timothy Dowling, also wrote the two most recent X-Men films, “Jumper,’’ and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,’’ that movie in which Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt spend two hours trying to annihilate each other. “This Means War’’ is “Mr. & Mrs. Smith’’ without the nasty conjugal metaphor. Its friskiness might be actionable: How best to bug a lady’s home or GPS her life in order to get into her pants? But Pine’s character reminds us it’s government sanctioned: “Patriot Act!’’ The director is McG, who, in two “Charlie Angels’’ movies, has already trod this gravelly road of sex and action. In that series, at least, he could sustain a wink. The sexiness was funny, and the women were in on the gags, co-owners of the fantasy the movie was selling.

Lauren doesn’t control anything, ultimately not even whether she’s allowed to have sex with two men. The movie sticks her with the comedian Chelsea Handler, who plays Lauren’s bawdy older friend. She’s funny, but to limit the danger of her barbs the movie makes her a stay-at-home mom, not a single lady who’d want in on Lauren’s action. Really, that relationship is the most convenient way for the two men to eavesdrop on Lauren’s reviews of her dates and learn how to better impress her. Pine’s spy tries to wow Lauren with the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Hardy’s takes her paint-balling and introduces her to his son. All Witherspoon gets to do with all three actors is react.

She’s not the only misused woman here. The movie’s punch line about sex is one of the more perverse revelations I’ve seen performed in the spirit of confessional fun. And Angela Bassett plays the peeved boss of the CIA boys. She comes into her scenes typically full-throttle and is 100 expletives shy of being Eddie Murphy’s combustible boss in “Beverly Hills Cop.’’ It’s a part that’s beneath thankless.

Whatever’s happening with women and romance at the moment is worrying. Rachel McAdams spends “The Vow’’ trapped in a post-adolescent self, with no memory of the woman she was before a car accident. “One for the Money’’ turns Janet Evanovich’s tough, eccentric bounty hunter into Katherine Heigl. Kristen Stewart spent four “Twilight’’ movies pleading for a vampire to make love to her; when he does, she almost dies giving birth to their demon-child. On “30 Rock,’’ Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon is now so pitifully addicted to the approval of Jack Donaghy that she no longer knows what she wants in a relationship. This version of Witherspoon might be the most dismaying of all since she’s not even a woman. She’s a place to plant a flag. It’s hard to see her in this movie, say, enjoying a private dance to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It’’ while Pine and Hardy secretly watch her from inside her house, and not feel vengeful. This really should mean war.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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THIS MEANS WAR

Directed by: McG

Written by: Simon Kinberg

and Timothy Dowling

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler, Til Schweiger,

and Angela Bassett

At: Boston Common,

Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 98 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (violence and action, language, sexual content including an unkind reference to male anatomy, some buttocks, and making out)

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