This Means War

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I checked out of the brightly lit but dimly conceived romantic comedy “This Means War.” Let me describe the scene for you.

Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), our perky professional gal who’s unlucky at love, has just run into her ex-boyfriend and his gorgeous fiancée, who kiss passionately for no reason right in front of her, right in the middle of their conversation. (BECAUSE THEY ARE DEEPLY IN LOVE AND LAUREN IS ALONE, YOU SEE!!) Not wanting to seem pathetic, Lauren tells them she’s on her way to have dinner with her own fiancé, a surgeon named Ken, who we know does not exist. Where she actually goes is to a sushi restaurant where she is a regular, and where the chef is named Ken, which we learn because he’s wearing a giant name tag that reads “KEN.” (OH, THAT’S WHY SHE SAID HER BOYFRIEND WAS NAMED KEN!!) Then, as fate would have it, the lovers she just ran into ALSO come to this restaurant! What are the odds?? “Oh, this seat must be for your fiancé,” one of them says to Lauren. And before Lauren can answer, Ken the chef says, “No! Sushi for one! Always sushi for one!!” End scene.

The skeleton of this sequence — Lauren sees ex-boyfriend, feels vulnerable, makes up a lie, gets caught in the lie — is perfectly acceptable comedy fodder. What ruins it is the bumbling, on-the-nose execution, culminating in the chef saying not just that Lauren is here alone tonight, but that she is here alone EVERY night (which he has no reason to say). The film wanted to establish that Lauren is single and kind of pitiful, and it took the easiest, dumbest, least plausible route to get there.

That’s the movie in a nutshell: half-decent ideas totally botched by generic, ham-fisted writing. (The screenplay is credited to Timothy Dowling, who worked on last year’s “Just Go with It,” and Simon Kinberg, who wrote “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.”) It would be nice to pin some of the blame on the director, McG, just because it’s McG and he’s a doofus, but I’m not sure anyone could have saved a script this sloppy.

Here are some of the more famous rom-com cliches that are used without wit or distinction in “This Means War.”

– Lauren’s best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler), is a sex-obsessed married woman who drinks a lot and “tells it like it is,” i.e., she only talks about sex and drinking. Some recent movies have converted the Vulgar Sexpot Best Friend into the Gay Best Friend, but “This Means War” sticks with tradition. Everything Trish says is saucy and blunt, which is not necessarily the same thing as funny.

– Lauren meets Tuck (Tom Hardy), a Nice Guy who is incredibly good-looking but unable to find a date, on a dating website. Turns out her well-meaning coworkers posted a profile on her behalf! Zoinks! The website, by the way, is called It’, because the film takes place in a world where URLs can have apostrophes.

– Lauren also meets FDR (Chris Pine, in Capt. Kirk mode), a Commitment-phobic Player whose odd name is never explained, at a massive DVD-rental store, because the film takes place in a world where there are massive DVD-rental stores. He tries to pick her up by guessing what kind of movie she will rent. They clash and do not like each other!! But he persuades her to go on a date.

– While on their date, they see Lauren’s ex-boyfriend and his gorgeous fiancée on the street, so Lauren does that thing where she tells FDR to kiss her and pretend to be her boyfriend. He goes along with it. Then, having bonded over this chicanery, Lauren and FDR warm up to each other.

– Now Lauren has two boyfriends and doesn’t know which one to choose. What’s more, both boyfriends are keeping secrets from her, secrets that will make her very sad when she finds out, which she inevitably will. She even makes a point of mentioning that she has a hard time trusting people, to make it all the sadder when her trust is violated at the movie’s 70-minute mark.

But guess what? “This Means War” isn’t just a dimwitted romantic comedy. It’s also a dumb action comedy! Because Tuck and FDR are both CIA agents, you see, and lifelong best friends. They both know that the other is also dating Lauren, and they’ve adopted a “may the best man win” policy. They’ve agreed 1) not to tell Lauren that they know each other and 2) not to tell her that they are CIA agents. Each man uses his CIA resources to tap Lauren’s phone and plant cameras in her house to learn more about her and woo her better. Tuck hears Lauren tell Trish that Tuck is kind of “safe,” so he takes her to a paintball game where he can show off his macho side. FDR learns that Trish volunteers at an animal shelter, so he takes her to a different shelter and pretends he’s a regular there. All of this is unsettling if you think about it for more than a few seconds. And if you think about it for more than a few seconds, you’ll have put more thought into it than the writers did.

In keeping with dumb-action-comedy subplot, Tuck and FDR are on the trail of a European bad guy named Heinrich (Til Schweiger) whose brother was killed during a CIA mission, thus giving Heinrich a personal vendetta against Tuck and FDR. Eventually Lauren is dragged into it, and there are car chases covered by TV news choppers, and big shootouts, and a lot of things explode for no reason, and so forth. Also, Tuck and FDR have a Blustery Boss (Angela Bassett, in a thankless role) who calls them on the carpet for their reckless, loose-cannon ways.

You know who has chemistry? Tom Hardy and Chris Pine. Not the romantic kind (now THAT would be a movie!), but the fraternal kind. Their scenes together, which might outnumber the scenes that either of them has with Witherspoon, often have a lighthearted energy that’s fun to watch and that suggests they’d make a good duo in a buddy comedy. It’s the one thing that keeps this mess from being a complete debacle.

D+ (1 hr., 38 min.; PG-13, one F-word, some vulgar dialogue, some sexuality, action violence.)