February is, among other things, the month we celebrate Valentine’s Day, and it occurred to me that Romantic Comedies rarely get much mention around here. Often referred to as rom coms, date movies, and chick flicks (though the latter two likely encompass a slightly larger category), the last one I can remember seeing was a vehicle for one of the current leading practitioners of the genre, Reese Witherspoon, as well as the up and coming young star Chris Pine. The film was received poorly by the critics, but scored somewhat higher with audiences. I won’t pretend its good, but am closer to the audience reaction than the critics. Let’s review some of the strengths and weaknesses of this production, and consider what characteristics most likely impact whether a romantic comedy hits or misses.
** spoiler alert **
Plot Synopsis - In the opening sequence, we find two CIA operatives, “FDR” Foster, (Pine) and “Tuck” Hansen (Tom Hardy), on assignment high atop a skyscraper in Hong Kong. Their mission is to stop the sale of a “MacGuffin” like secret weapon to the North Koreans, apprehend the seller, international arms dealer Karl Heinrich (Til Schweiger) and obtain the “weapon.” The parameter of the mission requires it remain strictly covert. The sale is broken up, the money scattered to the winds, and the “weapon” falls off the roof of the skyscraper (never to be mentioned again.) Heinrich’s younger brother is killed, but Heinrich himself escapes and vows vengeance against FDR and Tuck who are placed on “inside” status as a result.
Back in L.A. we are introduced to Lauren Scott (Witherspoon) who is chief product tester at Smart Consumer, Inc. a fictional “Consumer Reports” type company. While out walking, she runs into her ex-boyfriend who induced her to move from Atlanta. He introduces her to his new fiancee, so Lauren pretends she is meeting her (fictitious) new guy for dinner. When they later stumble across Lauren dining alone at a sushi bar, she is humiliated. Lauren’s best friend (Chelsea Handler) decides to sign her up with an on-line dating service (it’sfate.net) without her knowledge.
It turns out FDR is quite the ladies man around town, while Tuck is separated from his wife (Abigail Spencer) and seven year old son. Tuck is never home, and his “cover” is that he is a travel agent who actually travels all the time. The double “meet cute” goes down like this. Tuck happens to sign up for the same dating service and gets paired up with Lauren. F.D.R. insists he hang out nearby for their first meeting at a sidewalk cafe, so he can “coach” Tuck. Lauren and Tuck hit it off exceedingly well, and he promises to call her for a date. Lauren happens to stop by a video store around the corner, from where FDR was stationed to “help” if needed. FDR hits on Lauren who quickly sizes him up as a horn dog, and blows him off, but he uses CIA resources to find out who she is. He attends her focus group product testing the next day, and bullies her into a date for that night. Soon after the date begins, Lauren leaves, but again runs into her “ex” and his fiancee, and begs FDR to pretend to be her boy friend. He agrees, but demands an explanation, then takes her for pizza, where she begins to see him in a different light. Tuck and FDR quickly learn they are interested in the same lady, and the “war” begins.
They agree they will “compete” for Lauren and set up ground rules that they will not let her know they are best friends, will not spy nor interfere with each other, and that neither will sleep with her unless and until and she chooses one over the other. Naturally, the competition escalates, and their friendship is strained to the breaking point. Lauren, of course, really cares for both of them, and much of the remainder of the movie is devoted to determining which one she will choose, and includes both of their numerous and humorous attempts to screw up each other’s overtures to Lauren using the best technology the CIA has to offer. Lurking in the background, naturally, is the villainous Heinrich who quickly tracks down the two agents who killed his brother, and is ready for payback.
The story takes a fairly traditional rom com storyline, and pairs it with an action/adventure super spy genre for, hopefully, a fresh approach. The two operatives are clearly more from the Ethan Hunt Mission Impossible School of super agents. Both the opening and closing sequences are complete with slow motion floor slides with automatic pistols blazing or back flips while tossing a spare clip to one’s partner. This is a big budget production, so the effects are just what one might expect. The question is, whether we have seen so much of this kind of scene, it no longer seems particularly special. This all leads to characters and premises to which calling them unrealistic would be an understatement. On the other hand, if one realizes it is a rom com parodying action/adventure, it doesn’t seem quite so lame. Plausibility is not always mandatory in this genre.
The second issue is quality of jokes and laugh-lines. To be honest, I am somewhat split on that issue when it comes to this film. Many of the lines (Reese stating she doesn’t want to end up as some mad man’s “skin suit” or FDR’s denigrating women who sign-up for on-line dating by stating “half of them pee standing up”) are just dreadful. This kind of dialogue is sophomoric to be charitable, and makes me wonder how these particular screen writers sleep at night. At the same time, many of the devices used by FDR and Tuck to mess up the other guy’s dates are genuinely hilarious. In particular, there is a scene where FDR kidnaps a group of actors hired by Tuck to portray his family, and replaces them with his own set of impostors that truly is laugh out loud funny.
The Verdict - Everyone, at times, sees a romantic comedy. It is generally a lighthearted affair, meant to be fun, and not at all taken too seriously. This is not anywhere near the best of the genre, but is enough good to proudly proclaim “it doesn’t suck as much as Roger Ebert claims!" If you miss this, rest assured you can still sleep soundly knowing so. But if you are a rom com fan, or a Reese Witherspoon fan, or your date is either of those things; you can probably view it, get through it, and even enjoy several laughs along the way.