02/15/2012 08:11 am ET Updated Apr 16, 2012

Movie Review: This Means War

There's nothing wrong with This Means War that a humor-transplant couldn't cure.

Granted, romantic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy to pull off, especially when that romcom also wants to be an action-thriller. But director McG -- who is like a less grandiose version of Michael Bay -- doesn't even come close with This Means War, the most humor-challenged big-budget effort since The Tourist.

In some ways, War is the bromance version of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which could have been by McG but, instead, was by Doug Liman, who is like McG with a functioning brain. Instead of two spies trying to kill each other because each thinks the other has gone rogue, War pits America's two top agents (who happen also to be best pals) against each other -- over a woman.

That's the joke. Trust me, it's the only joke.

Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) are long-time partners in CIA black ops, a career that comes at the cost of a personal life for both of them. When Tuck (the sincere one) announces that he's going to find a woman and settle down, FDR (the womanizer) scoffs; then Tuck finds the woman of his dreams, and she turns out to be FDR's dreamgirl, too.

Naturally, they agree to put their friendship first -- and naturally each unleashs all manner of tradecraft (and underlings) on each other's dates with the girl, whose name is Lauren (Reese Witherspoon). Lauren isn't really written; rather, she's a dramatic device, necessary to pit Tuck and FDR against each other in an increasingly vitriolic battle. She also provides the filmmakers with the opportunity to weave an otherwise unnecessary female-friend character into the plot, and then fill the part with Chelsea Handler (who reads her lines like a less talented Parker Posey).

The actual plot -- the story that provides the jeopardy with which the characters will be tested -- is an afterthought, something about a terrorist (Til Schweiger) who plans an attack on American soil. Again, nothing to worry about -- just the set-up and wrap-up to remind us about the bigger things that are at stake.

Pine, Hardy and Witherspoon all have a nice sense of timing, but no material to exercise it with. The gestures are there, but that's all; the writing might as well be blank pages, for the amount of laughter it delivers.

This Means War could be the battle-cry of anyone who buys a ticket to this mess. Better to be a conscientious objector and avoid this mirthless skirmish.

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