"You're not good at lying," says FDR Foster to his best buddy, Tuck, in This Means War. He's right: The heavily muscled, tattooed tough guy is really a teddy bear who wears his heart on his sleeve and his true feelings all over his face.
It's that earnestness that immediately makes Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) fall for Tuck (Tom Hardy) when they're on a first date. FDR (Chris Pine) falls for her later the same day, and the two meatheads spend the rest of the film competing for her affections — while callously lying to her and, almost as an afterthought, putting all of their lives in danger.
Life and death are in play because FDR and Tuck just happen to be highly trained, highly dangerous CIA agents — which ought to be a problem, given not only that Tuck is a terrible liar, but that the two generally aren't very good at much of anything, apart from looking dapper and beating people up.
But never mind, because in the cartoonish universe of This Means War, general idiocy isn't really seen as a liability. That's a notion that applies as much to the agents themselves as it does to the blindingly unfunny script.
Their general ineptitude could have worked, if director McG had wanted to make the film a self-conscious parody — spy movie cliches in service to a romantic comedy. Indeed, in an earlier vision of the project, Seth Rogen was to star in the film; throwing him and, say, a Jonah Hill into the leads could have lent this the tone of a 21st-century Spies Like Us.
And in the film's opening minutes, it feels as if that might be the desired effect: It's loaded with overblown action chestnuts like from-the-hip gunplay, people dangling from the sides of skyscrapers and a gruff commanding officer. (That would be Angela Bassett, who shows up periodically to growl at her charges in a role that might have been hilarious had anyone thought to write anything legitimately funny for her.)
But a good parody takes a finesse that isn't in the vocabulary of McG, a bargain-basement Michael Bay more concerned with cool than coherence. Instead we get utter nonsense like a video store with a database that conveniently includes customer photos for the CIA to tap into. (Related: These characters are, in 2012, going to a video store?)
In another scene, FDR wrestles on the floor with a small dog that has just attacked him, as Lauren stands 5 feet away, oblivious. The Farrelly brothers should sue the producers not for stealing the scene outright from There's Something About Mary, but for imitating it so badly.
Elsewhere, they attempt a riff on Cyrano by having FDR wax academic about the work of Lauren's favorite artist, Gustav Klimt, while being fed the lines via an earpiece. The mystery of how he managed to get the original canvas of The Kiss to a storeroom in Los Angeles from its gallery home in Austria is never broached.
All the while, FDR and Tuck are burning through thousands of dollars in CIA surveillance resources and manpower to one-up each other, while largely ignoring the case they're ostensibly working on. But no matter, since McG largely ignores that subplot as well — at least until he needs it to facilitate the film's big action finale.
Comedy often requires that actors be willing to look foolish in service of a gag. All the performers seem more than game — even Hardy, who would seem to be the odd man out here; he's a superb and chameleonic dramatic actor trying his hand at silly comedy for the first time.
But with the material they're given, they mostly just seem foolish for showing up to the movie to begin with. Audiences would do well to avoid the same mistake. Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit www.npr.org.