The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
This Means War

Written by Greg Frame.

Photo from the article This Means War is such a poor excuse for a film that it seems preposterous to offer more specific thoughts on the movie itself that weren’t already covered by my short review (indeed, I trawled the dark recesses of my brain for some, and they were not forthcoming). It is, however, an interesting (if thoroughly depressing) example of contemporary Hollywood’s industrial processes, which deserve further exploration.

This Means War is a supreme example of Film-By-Focus-Group, whereby studio executives try to cram in a wide variety of material in order please as many different audiences as possible, thereby guaranteeing themselves a decent return on their initial investment (this, anyway, is the theory). The film is designed to appeal to both men and women (a novel idea if I ever heard one) - a kind of young adult date movie in which there is romance for the girls, and action for the guys. Hollywood used to make films for everyone until, in the 1980s, it started turning its attention first and foremost to teenage boys. As evidenced by This Means War, it seems they have entirely forgotten how to depart from this lumbering, but seemingly unstoppable, formula. That it fails so spectacularly in the filmmaking department is unsurprising: when there are this many cooks and ingredients involved, the broth is destined to emerge as colourless, foul-tasting sludge.

Casting plays a significant role in this process. Chris Pine, probably best known for playing Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek (2009) movie, is sufficiently swaggering to play the insensitive but devilishly attractive FDR. The intention here on the part of the Hollywood execs is for the character to fulfil that hackneyed maxim: “Men want to be him and girls want to be with him.” Reese Witherspoon’s character is designed to fulfil the role of tough and capable career woman, but the demands of her job have rendered her incapable of finding a man and settling down (in the most conservative, Hollywood sense of the term). Tom Hardy appears to play the kind of Brit Hollywood loves; his entire role appears to pivot around the idea that American women love British accents. While I like Hardy, if that’s all they wanted him to do they might as well have cast Alan Rickman in the role. So, in a neat little package, the stars of Star Trek, Legally Blonde (2001) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (2011) are bundled together in a package that is meant to be funny, sexy and thrilling. Only problem is, they seem like they’re all in different films: the lack of chemistry between them is quite startling.

A film containing such diverse elements requires a capable and intelligent person behind the camera. McG is not that man. Perhaps this isn’t really his fault: how many action-romantic-comedy-thrillers ever actually live up to their billing? As genres, they appear to be irreconcilable, and good examples can be counted on one hand (for every Lethal Weapon [1987], there are a multitude of Rush Hours [1998]). Perhaps you have to go back further: Alfred Hitchcock was deft at handling humour, thrills and sex in films like North By Northwest (1959). Indeed, This Means War is foolish enough to explicitly reference this cross-generic aspect of Hitch's cinema, as if mere association with the great director would be enough to elevate it to his level. As Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon debate the relative merits of Rebecca (1940) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) while browsing the shelves at a video store, the allusions to the Master of Suspense’s impressive back catalogue merely confirm just how dull and lifeless This Means War is by comparison. Lauren in fact appears to plump ultimately for one of the Star Wars prequels: exactly the kind of unimaginative, comatose blockbusters to which This Means War is indebted.

This seems to be a major problem with big budget Hollywood cinema of late. So important is the fulfilment of certain criteria to please a broad spectrum of niche audiences that blockbuster films appear to have become a series of “bits”. The two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were similar in approach: with little attention to script, narrative or coherent plotting, a giant casserole pot of wildly divergent ingredients was flung together in the hope that enough of it will taste good to keep the punters rolling in. In that particular case, the “formula” worked financially, and both films grossed in the region of $1 billion worldwide. This Means War attempts to replicate the pattern, to the extent there are some ill-judged, crushingly unfunny “Bridesmaids-esque” scenes where Witherspoon’s best friendly says lots of dirty words and speaks frankly (and, frankly, disgustingly) about her sex life with her overweight, hairy, sweaty husband. These scenes are meant to capitalise on the post-Bridesmaids (2011) idea that women talking dirty and behaving badly is inherently hilarious; but when the script and performance is devoid of any wit or invention, this is what you’re left with: a pale imitation of the film that inspired it.

Depressingly, it seems that making a decent film simply was not the point of This Means War: it has only an industrial point, and as long as it checks enough boxes and does decent business in its open weekend, nobody will really mind. Thankfully, as demonstrated by the recent spectacular failure of the similarly focus-grouped John Carter, the strategy does not always work. I did not really intend this piece to become a lament at the current state of Hollywood filmmaking, and I obviously do not want to suggest that everything made before 1980 was brilliant, nor that everything made after is terrible; but, equally, they genuinely do not make them like they used to. This Means War is merely a product, advertised on the side of a bus, bought like one buys microwave pizza. Not particularly satisfying or nourishing, definitely not very good for you, but you’ll buy it anyway if there’s nothing else to eat.

This Alternate Take was published on April 07, 2012.

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