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This Means War, Secret World of Arrietty 

THIS MEANS WAR

*1/2

When it comes to the twin businesses of sexual politics and romantic revelations, the number of modern-day comedies that have managed to smartly upend all the tired stereotypes and withering clichés is a dismally small one, sporting a losing ratio comparable to that of the 2011 Indianapolis Colts. Four Weddings and a Funeral is one example of a shining success; Bridesmaids is another. This Means War, on the other hand, loses the battle almost from the start.

That's a shame, because this calendar year likely won't see a more appealing trio of players sharing one marquee than this film's dream -- and dreamy -- team of Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy. The two dudes respectively play FDR and Tuck, crack CIA agents who are BFFs until they both fall for the same woman. That would be Lauren, a lonely workaholic who goes from having no boyfriends to having two guys fighting over her. With her best friend Trish (Chelsea Handler) offering her dubious advice, Lauren simultaneously dates both studs in order to determine her best match. For their part, FDR and Tuck are utilizing all the espionage tools at their disposal (satellites, wiretaps, etc.) to thwart the other fellow in his amorous advances.

In popcorn-picture terms, it has promise, and indeed, there are a couple of sequences in the midsection that fulfill the film's potential, particularly an uproarious scene in which Tuck, in an effort to show Lauren that he's not as "safe" as she believes, uses his agent training to destroy the competition on a paintball course.

But for the most part, the movie is a clumsy mess, replete with an action-packed subplot (involving a cardboard Euro-baddie seeking revenge) that comes across as so unnecessary, it could only have been added in the hopes of luring teen boys away from the more manly multiplex competition (given the release date, that would be the Ghost Rider sequel) and toward this film. Yeah, good luck with that.

As far as the characterizations are concerned, they follow the same outdated playbook that's generally kept under lock and key by Katherine Heigl to use in her films. Lauren comes across as a ninny, FDR is insufferable, Trish is like all married women in movies (alcoholic, bitter, and living vicariously through her hot, young, single friend), and Tuck's ex (Abigail Leigh Spencer) has no interest in a sensitive, caring father until she learns he can beat the living hell out of people. It's safe to assume that only Hardy (and his pursed lips) will escape from this debacle unharmed.

As for the resolution of the romantic dilemma ... well, let's just say that the filmmakers would have been hard-pressed to come up with a worst ending. But then they tack on a ghastly epilogue, and what seemed near-impossible becomes a harsh reality.

THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY

***

An adaptation of Mary Norton's classic novel The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty hails from Japan's Studio Ghibli, the only toon factory comparable to Pixar. It's understandable that the original Japanese voices have been overlaid with English ones for many international markets, but considering this dubbing already took place for the picture's UK release -- and with noteworthy actors like Atonement's Saoirse Ronan and Sherlock Holmes' Mark Strong, to boot -- did stateside distributor Disney really need to replace those British voices with American ones? Were they afraid Yank audiences might be too dumb to decipher the King's English?

Whatever the daft reason, it's a good bet this film would still work even in Pig Latin, given the usual warmth and attention to detail invested in all Ghibli efforts. The story revolves around the title character (Bridgit Mendler) and her parents (Amy Poehler and Will Arnett), inches-tall people who live in their own makeshift home underneath a real house. Warned to avoid human contact at all costs, Arrietty nevertheless strikes up a tentative friendship with a sickly boy (David Henrie), a bond that inadvertently draws the attention of a cruel housekeeper (Carol Burnett).

Leisurely related and lovingly crafted (I love how the miniature family uses canceled stamps as wall paintings), The Secret World of Arrietty is an oasis of calm in the normally hyperactive world of toon entertainment.

 

 

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