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June 5, 2012
Shark Bite Theatre
This Means War: FDR is Captain Kirk
by Andrew E. Lindsay

This Means War is a funny movie, but it's not for everyone. It's the story of two CIA operatives who have been partners for a long time but have been best of friends for even longer.

Tom Hardy plays Tuck, a seemingly quiet guy who is apparently divorced or at least separated, and he has a young son with whom he has a limited relationship. His ex-wife and son believe he is a travel agent (whose job, oddly enough, requires him to travel extensively), and, as demonstrated in an early scene at his son's martial arts class, there is also a general consensus that he is kind of a pushover.

He's not any of those things, of course, and he regularly jets around the globe chasing big-time bad guys with his partner FDR, and the two of them obviously know dozens of ways to beat the snot out of or otherwise dispatch the baddies.

Tuck's partner and pal, FDR Foster, is played with a pleasant combination of cockiness and charm by Chris Pine. FDR has never settled down, is quite the ladies' man, and his cover story is that he is the captain of a cruise ship.

As the movie begins, these two are on a covert mission to apprehend a particularly nasty fellow named Heinrich (played by Til Schweiger) in Hong Kong, who is transacting some kind of arms deal or something. It's a rather James Bond-esque opening, complete with bevies of beautiful people at a high-rise cocktail party where guests arrive via helicopter on the adjoining rooftop terrace.

Our heroes enter in very expensive suits just minutes before the bad guys show up, but there's still plenty of time for trading insults with each other and sexual innuendo with some of the attractive barflies.

Halfway through the promiscuous parley, their pleasure is interrupted by work as Heinrich shows up with his posse and heads behind closed doors to close his deal, complete with briefcases full of cash. The deal quickly heads south, automatic weapons eliminate Heinrich's future ex-business partners, and as they make a hasty exit back to the helicopter, Tuck and FDR spring into action.

When all is said and done, all the bad guys are dead except Heinrich, who makes a Bond-inspired base-jumping getaway. One of the casualties is Heinrich's brother, which Heinrich naturally takes rather personally, and he begins plotting his revenge on the two CIA agents who spoiled his party.

If this were a James Bond movie, the rest of the plot would obviously revolve around Heinrich's carefully woven web of grandiose, evil plans, spun to ensure the demise of 007. Bond would of course encounter a number of beautiful women in the process of trying to defeat the villain, but all the while intent on saving the world.

This is not a James Bond movie, and the psychopathic Heinrich barely has any active part in the plot until the end of the movie. This is, in fact, a romantic comedy about two buddies who both accidentally fall in love with the same girl. That girl, Lauren, is played by Reese Witherspoon, ever beautiful and at once able to command your attention dramatically and comedically.

In fact, the ensuing love triangle between Pine, Reese, and Hardy is quite fun to watch and, amazingly, has some real chemistry.

Although the competition between the two would-be suitors gets rather intense, their efforts to sabotage one another never seem to cross the line into some other movie where the people become cartoons and the humorous situations replace the plot. Yes, some of the comedy is a little outrageous, but given the context of the battling boyfriends being super spies, well, you sort of expect them to exploit the enormous resources at their disposal to keep tabs on each other and the object of their affection.

All this is done with the help of several other operatives who have been duped into thinking this has something to do with the Heinrich case.

Lauren quickly finds herself torn between two lovers, but completely unaware that the two of them know each other. And her relationship with each of the men feels genuine because they play it straight, not for laughs. The laughs come naturally because the pranks they play are funny, but believable, for the most part.

The movie is rated PG-13, but apparently was originally awarded an R rating until some re-editing toned down some of the most suggestive dialogue in the movie. The racy dialogue belongs almost entirely to Chelsea Handler, who plays Lauren's friend and confidant, Trish.

Handler is a funny woman. She has her own comedy talk show in real life, and she is very quick and very funny. And she's also not the kind of comedienne you'd be inclined to listen to with your mother. Most of her lines in the film were ad-libbed, and I found myself a little embarrassed that I was laughing at some of her locker room humor, kind of like trying not to laugh at your toddler when she's just launched a plateful of Spaghettios into her brother's lap. It's naughty, but it was funny. But I probably shouldn't be encouraging naughty behavior, either.

The real problem I had with Handler's performance was the same problem I have with Betty White or Adam Sandler. These are both funny people whom I often enjoy watching, but who seem intent on wrecking their own movies because they are apparently unaware of what kind of movie they're in.

Sandra Bullock's The Proposal was a fun, romantic comedy that sailed along rather smoothly until Betty White showed up and reminded me that I was watching a movie, and since it was a comedy she was going to do some funny things. Sadly, the harder she tried to be funny the less funny I found her and the more out of sync her scenes felt.

Adam Sandler has a similar but even bigger problem. He's actually a fine dramatic actor who has turned in a few standout performances, like Spanglish and Reign Over Me. While White is simply a comedienne who tries to steal every scene she's in by overplaying it, the trouble with Sandler is that he could effortlessly move between comedy and drama, but he almost never seems to know what's appropriate for the film at hand.

Several of his comedies have been very sweet, earnest stories with real heart and characters we genuinely care about. And then, apparently unbridled or uncontrollable by directors or producers, he jerks us out of our suspended disbelief with misplaced, sophomoric, stupid humor and ruins the moment. In the ruined moment we are taken back to grade school, and the grown up pathos we felt before is trampled and lost as we sort through the sudden intrusion into the story we thought we were watching.

In This Means War, Chelsea Handler took up the stupid Sandler mantle and served to constantly remind me that this was supposed to be a comedy by doing her sexually-charged, gross-out banter that seemed to have been lifted from a different movie entirely, like maybe Bridesmaids or The Hangover.

Although the chemistry between the three main characters felt real and thus invited me to care about how this mess would resolve itself, there was no chemistry between Lauren and Trish. It never felt real, and Trish's rants were just Chelsea's talk show tirades force-fit into a few frames here and there when Lauren needed to talk about her romantic conundrum.

Thankfully, Handler's time on screen is minimal, and the real fun of the movie is the maneuvering Tuck and FDR do to win the girl without losing each other. There are some other small but enjoyable characters along the way, and the bad guy does show up at the end for the obligatory show-down.

All's well that ends well, but I did feel like the very last couple of lines of dialogue between Tuck and FDR were unnecessary and stripped the story of some of its sweetness.

I'm not revealing any important plot points here, but I could've done without the dumb addendum. There were also a few funny inside-jokes sprinkled in the movie, a number of which reference Star Trek (Tom Hardy was in Star Trek: Nemesis, and Chris Pine played Captain Kirk in the most recent Star Trek movie).

And if you know that Pine's father, Robert Pine, played the recurring role of Sgt. Joseph Getraer on the 1970s' TV show "CHiPs," you'll get an extra laugh out of the scene where FDR is calling Tuck to remind him that he's late for their "CHiPs" marathon. So it's a pretty fun movie that moves along pretty well, but if some overtly sexual dialogue turns you off completely, then you'd be better off watching "CHiPs" reruns yourself.


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