Sunday, February 19, 2012

This Means Affectionate Straight Men in the Movies

[Very mild spoilers to follow, but, seriously, if you can't guess how This Means War will end ten minutes in, you clearly have never seen a romantic comedy in your life.]

From the moment we heard about the plot of This Means War, nearly every person I know has made the same wish: that somewhere in the film the two male stars, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, would get naked and make out with each other. It was a futile wish, no doubt, since This Means War was always going to be a mainstream, conservative romantic comedy/action film hybrid and co-star Reese Witherspoon can't end up alone. But we still wished. In my case, right up until the opening credits. Needless to say, none of this happened; if anything, This Means War is as predictable as these things tend to be. But on the way to mediocrity and heteronormality, This Means War manages to present a narrative that could have handled my dream ending of Pine and Hardy's characters riding off into the sunset together.

From the beginning of the film, we see that Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) are close with each other. They have, what the kids like to call, a "bromance"--a really close friendship between two macho, heterosexual men who downplay their closeness by adding masculine prefixes to "girly" emotions. It's a strange phenomenon in our culture, refreshing on one hand to see men caring for each other but ultimately frustrating because they still have to hide their affection under incredibly masculine terms so as not to appear effeminate in any way. This Means War certainly follows this trend, but we quickly see that there's something more to this relationship.


Not ten minutes into the film, a brief but important scene comes up that completely changes the way we view their relationship. FDR and Tuck are at FDR's grandmother's house for some kind of family gathering, sitting together at a table in the back of the yard. It's certainly a strange sight: two bachelors in their 30's, one a serial dater, the other damaged after a relationship gone bad, huddled by themselves at a party, discussing how delicious the gluten-free cake is. After a conversation with FDR's grandmother about finding love, Tuck admits to FDR that he would love to settle down and grow old with someone, the way FDR's grandparents have. It sounds rather trite on paper, and perhaps it is, but this moment is important for two reasons. First of all, the film never once laughs at Tuck's outpouring of emotion and sentiment. There's no sense that director McG or that either of the actors are trying make him look like a fool for having these feelings or expressing them in this direct manner. It would have been all too easy for FDR's character to make one snide comment about him acting like a woman. Instead, he seems genuinely interested in what Tuck is saying. And this leads right in to my second point: there is genuine affection between these two men that many mainstream films would skim over. They listen to each other and only want the best for the other. Basically, when FDR and Tuck say that they would do anything for each other, you believe it.

Both of these points are repeatedly made throughout the film. After they both meet and fall for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), Tuck takes her out on a date to the carnival. The problem is that FDR is expecting Tuck to hang out with him. He calls Tuck multiple times only to reach his voicemail. Each time, he leaves a message and they get increasingly rambly, clingy, worrisome and hilarious. In a way, the scene plays out like the stereotypical scene in nearly every modern romantic comedy where the heroine leaves a long-winded message for the guy who's just not that into her and she accidentally comes off like a crazed psychopath. The main difference between this and the scene in This Means War is that although it's funny, we're never laughing at FDR. We're laughing because Pine does a good job being incredibly awkward and tongue-tied, not because he's acting like a girl in the aforementioned clichéd scene and, haha, isn't it funny that he's leaving these messages for another guy? Where this scene could have easily taken the "let's laugh at the girly man" approach, you have to admire how Pine and McG go in the opposite direction.

By the end of the film, Lauren has chosen her man (surprise, it's the one who doesn't have a viable alternative introduced in the first ten minutes) and, after all the spying, cheating and unsportsman-like conduct, Tuck and FDR make up. Characteristically, they forgive each other with a hug and by telling each other they love them. Again, it's never crass and there's never any snickering about two heterosexual men saying "I love you" to each other. It's just a part of their relationship, a part of life, in general. So, maybe it's not completely believable that these two would run off together and live happily ever after. But it's not any more of a stretch than Reese picking either of the boys after their bland, generic courtships. I truly believe that Pine and Hardy have more chemistry and show more affection with each other than they every did with Reese Witherspoon's character. Perhaps this is all the more reason to cherish them not getting together, for this kind of relationship is not something you see every day in an American mainstream film. C

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