Reese Witherspoon has a penchant for playing empowered female characters who are nevertheless confined to the kitchen of gender stereotypes, her oeuvre a sort of diluted, self-defeating brand of quasi-feminism for those who don’t have their hearts in it.

She played the bitchy over-achiever in Election (1999), the virginal daughter of a headmaster in Cruel Intentions (1999),¬†the ditzy lawyer who came good and like totally read books and stuff in Legally Blonde (2001), the sensual trapeze artist married to a mug in Water for Elephants (2011). In Witherspoon’s latest pay check — er, film — she is a single 30-something advertising exec coaxed into exploring online dating.

In This Means War, Lauren (Witherspoon) finds romantic double trouble with a couple of good looking spies (Chris Pyne and Tom Hardy), though nobody — least of all the audience — really believe they’re capable of anything other than Kodak grins and rocking expensive suits.

FDR (Pine) and Tuck (Hardy), office buds and espionage arse-kickers, agree to compete for her affections using whatever tricks at their disposal. After they bug her phone line FDR hears he’s “too selfish” so he adopts a lost dog; Tuck takes Lauren to play paint ball to dispel her idea that he’s “too safe,” a yada yada, and so on and so forth, etcetera etcetera.

It’s an online dating rom-com meets a happy meal spy flick: You’ve Got Mail (1998), but worse, crossed with Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2007), but worse. Hardy and Pyne are inconceivable as spies, and their chemistry¬† — with each other and Witherspoon — is dead on arrival, which is what audiences will feel like a few minutes into the running time.

Clunky action scenes staged like an upmarket daytime soap but with running, sliding and jumping, laugh-less, cringe-inducing comedy, and tacky writing packaged with smug vacuousness by Charles Angels director McG combine to make This Means War a pass-the-barf-bag howler.

This Means War’s Australian theatrical release date: February 14, 2012.

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