Saturday, February 25, 2012

The New (Secretly Plotting) Reese Witherspoon

Like that title? Don't worry. This won't be one of those long pseudo-analytical pieces. I just noticed a change in Reese Witherspoon's look over the past few years and how it seems to coincide with a change in the type of movies she has lined up. Witherspoon appears to be in the middle of a make-over both in the way she presents herself and the kind of movies she does and, seemingly, we've been getting clues for some time now.

But, before I get to my investigative reporting, let's look at Witherspoon's latest, 'This Means War'. It's looking pretty bad with a total of around $30m closing out its first full week -- worse when you take into account the $65m budget plus marketing. Just not a lot of demand for Reese in that cutesy Legally Blonde/Tracy Flick mode anymore and that (at least in trailers) is what she delivers in War. The problem is she's too old for that kind of role and, at age 35, she probably has been for a while. Can't blame her for hanging on, but the writing is on the wall.

On the subject Roger Ebert writes:

I could comprehend this story gimmick in a movie involving 16-year-olds. Witherspoon and her co-stars, Chris Pine and Tom Hardy, have an average age of 33.33, and that's how old they look, 33.33-ish. Their agents should be old enough to warn them against this movie. That they are all single is possible. That the two guys meet the same girl and fall instantly in love and engage in bitter romantic struggle is … not. Reese Witherspoon is as cute as a button on Raggedy Ann's overalls, but irresistible raw sex appeal is not one of her qualities.

Okay. Witherspoon doesn't sell (or hasn't sold) sultry sexiness too well. Thing is, she doesn't sell cute anymore, either (see: TMW box office results). And, she's kinda stuck -- too old to play smart and girlish, but too smart and cutesy girlish to play anything else.

About that, in her review of TMW, Manohla Dargis said:

For whatever reason (box office, looks, lack of imagination about women), industry sages keep putting Ms. Witherspoon in romances, which is like putting a shark in a tank with a bobbing basket of kittens. She can be a fine actress and a brilliant comic, but she’s too calculating and self-contained a presence for most romances, particularly those comedies that try to squeeze laughs from female submission or humiliation. Ms. Witherspoon doesn't register as the yielding type. (She’s good in battle, as in “Walk the Line” and especially “Election.”)

Agree. Can't argue with that. But, look at the still (from TMW) above. The two guys Reese's character has been stringing along (who've been playing her the whole time as they've known they were being strung along) are pretending (apparently. I haven't seen the movie) to meet for the first time, I suppose as some kind of gag at her expense. That's submissive (or at least passive) and kind of humiliating. Reese's expression says it all.

And, that leads us to Witherspoon's magazine covers from a few years back. Let's peruse a sampling:

All from 2005-2007 and as far as I can tell, all typical. Reese was very 'girl next door', the totally wholesome all-American blonde -- always had been. Granted, the two Elle covers are more flirty, but I don't buy it. One is too shy and comes off a bit unsure, while the other is more steamy, yes, but again, all little false. It's a bit of a stretch for her, something of a put-on. Otherwise, she might be someone you'd run into at the coffee shop or supermarket on a Sunday morning.

Nothing surprising about any of this. These covers are a variation on the Elle Woods theme. The Reese we've always known. We've never known another.

However, if you compare the above to these, we see a different girl:

All from 2011 and 2012, all featuring a range of sexiness from brassy and fun, to sultry and in-control -- and, again, all fairly typical. I don't get the feeling she's forcing it. She looks good, especially on the Vogue cover -- that's a nice one. Anyway...different. More sexier, less Flickier. I'm sold.

However, I remain confused. Why, if Ms. Witherspoon had been cultivating this new brand of come hither steaminess did she bother to make 'This Means War'? Certainly her character was clearly outlined by the screenplay: chirpy, girly, not what you'd call sexually aggressive (again, judging from trailers -- I haven't seen the movie and almost certainly never will. But, in fairness, all the other people who did not see the movie based their decision on the trailer and little else. I did, however, see the 9-minute preview, about which I said: "Yeah...that doesn't help. Kinda like sugar-coated James Bond, if James Bond was a one-hour TV show from the 80s or 90s. I'll take the nine minutes, guess what the rest of the flick has going on, call it a done deal, and get on with my life. Thanks anyway.")

What about TMW attracted Witherspoon if she was in the middle of transforming herself from a frilly girl next door you'd like to date to the sizzling woman at the end of the bar you wish you had the gumption to talk to? Who knows. A contractual thing? A promise to a friend? Whatever. Not sure it matters. What does matter is that TMW may very well be the last such project for Witherspoon, the last such character she portrays.

Let's look at what she has lined up. First, as a reference point, here's the IMDb write-up for 'This Means War':

Two top CIA operatives wage an epic battle against one another after they discover they are dating the same woman.

Director: McG

Uh...those three things, that made-for-TV poster, made-for-TV synopsis, and that McName, kind of knock the wind out of you.

Moving on. Witherspoon's next movie is:


A drama centered on two teenage boys who encounter a fugitive and pact to help him escape from an island in the Mississippi.

With Matthew McConaughey. Directed by Jeff Nichols, who wrote and directed the sublime 'Take Shelter' with Michael Shannon in a pitch-perfect performance, supported by Jessica Chastain, who is absolutely convincing as the concerned wife. (Really, if you haven't seen this one, check it out. Part domestic drama, part psychological horror -- it's very rewarding).

Wow. What a difference. Compare the pedigree of these two movies. Again, why would the actor that had this lined up make TMW?

Next up:

'Devil's Knot'

Three children were savagely murdered in 1993. Weeks later, police announced the arrest of three teens accused of committing the murders as part of a satanic cult ritual.

Based on Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three written by Mara Leveritt. Directed by no less than Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), co-starring Colin Firth as Ron Lax, the investigator who worked pro bono for Damien Echols (one of the men convicted of the murders).

This is must-see. I almost can't believe my eyes.

Seriously. Why did Witherspoon do 'This Means War' when she's trying to change her image and has this movie lined up? With this director and Colin Firth? I don't get it.

As for Witherspoon, she portrays Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims.

You can see Pam Hobbs' reaction to the news the men convicted of killing her son would be set free here.

From WREG's coverage:  The little boy's mother, Pam Hobbs, does not share the same fury, and has changed her mind about the killers in the last 18 years. "I felt like those three guys were guilty and they did it. 

Now, I'm a little confused over things that have come up over the years as to whether they actually committed the crime or if they're innocent," Hobbs said. "It's a terrible nightmare that I have to live with from day to day and I want to rest and I want my son to rest," she said. 

Up next:

'Big Eyes'

A drama centered on the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Witherspoon plays the painter Margaret Keane and Ryan Reynolds plays her husband. Written and directed by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski who did a good job writing stuff like '1408', 'Ed Wood', and 'The People vs. Larry Flynt'.

A nice sounding movie. Looking forward.


'Wish List'

Life changes for a thirtysomething career woman when a coin she threw in a magic fountain as a girl finally reaches the bottom.

Really, that sounds totally charming. Could be very special. Might be a step backward, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt. Let's say it has that 'Forrest Gump' vibe, for now. No director yet, but written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger who wrote 'Kung Fu Panda' and 'Monsters vs. Aliens'

Good news. I like Witherspoon but can't watch most of her movies. These upcoming movies, and the characters she plays, are about as different from 'This Means War' as you can get and I couldn't be happier. They, most undoubtedly, are not the Reese we've always known. In fact, with the exception of a very nice turn as June Carter in 'Walk the Line', they sound like a Reese we've never known.

It's a head-scratcher. She's had this career change in mind for years (judging from the magazine covers she decided around 2009 to make a move) but still produces stuff like 'This Means War'? Why? As a misdirection so we don't suspect she's got some fantastic stuff lined up down the road? So we don't catch on to her diabolical plan to win an Oscar a year, every year thank you very much, starting with 'Mud' in 2013? Is the title itself a clue: 'This Means War', as in, I'm declaring war against vapid screenplays and silly characters. (Yeah, I know. But, I couldn't help myself).

That's some hella good sleight of hand, Reese. You go girl! After 'This Means War' nobody suspects a thing. 


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