It has taken decades of watching and writing about movies, but This Means War might have finally helped me articulate what feels like a fundamental rule about would-be escapist entertainment: The more preposterous the situation at the center, the more genuine the characters need to be.
Suspension of disbelief is a requirement for any fantastic tale - cinematic or otherwise - but that disbelief needs to be suspended from something. And that something is almost always the characters at the center. You only find yourself sneering, "Yeah, right," when the filmmakers have given you no reason to believe there's anything at stake. There is no more fertile breeding ground for incredulity than an empty hole where a protagonist should be.
The premise for This Means War could have generated an entertaining movie, a romantic action-comedy with a heart. The setup finds CIA agents Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) as work partners and best friends, stuck behind desks after an assignment goes bad. With time to kill, sensitive Tuck starts pondering his lackluster romantic life, and tries out a dating site meet-up with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). Soon thereafter, ladies' man FDR meets a hot babe who catches his eye - Lauren. When the pals figure out they're interested in the same woman, both set out to win her over, using all the professional and technological resources at their disposal.
Co-screenwriter Simon Kinberg worked wonders with a similar "romantic entanglements go high-tech" concept in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, so either he had a load of crap to begin with in the story by Timothy Dowling and Marcus Gautesen, or he forgot how to anchor a story in the real world. A few token moments establish some lighthearted one-upmanship between Tuck and FDR, but virtually nothing indicates why such an intense rivalry would suddenly emerge between two apparently inseparable bros. The film introduces Tuck's separation from his wife (Abigail Spencer) and young son (John Paul Ruttan), and a childhood tragedy apparently contributes to FDR's one-night-only womanizing ways. But without a firm grasp on who these guys are and what they want, there's nothing but the gimmick that finds them using satellites and gadgetry to thwart one another and figure out shortcuts to Lauren's heart.
Yet they make more sense than Lauren herself, whose erratic personality shifts suggest she should be under surveillance for more traditional reasons. Is she the anxious basket case who freaks out when she sees her ex-boyfriend on the street with his new fiancée? Or is she the cocky, self-assured woman who parries come-ons with saucy banter? When the time comes for Lauren to make her difficult torn-between-two-lovers choice, might it have been possible for her selection to advance her character arc in some way, instead of feeling like the result of a coin flip? Witherspoon can be an appealing comedic performer, but Lauren isn't merely unsympathetic; she practically doesn't exist except as a trophy.
There are stretches when This Means War works on a purely superficial level. Chelsea Handler capably negotiates the role of the Lauren's dirty-mouthed best friend to deliver the biggest laugh lines, and some of the gags built around the agents' escalating war sneak in for a score. But in general, director McG's film just barrels ahead, not exciting enough to work as a thrill ride or funny enough to work as a simple comedy.