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THIS MEANS WAR , USA , 2012 , MPAA Rating : R for some sexual content

THIS MEANS WAR is a frothy romp of a popcorn flick brightened by witty writing and a cast that get laughs by expertly playing it straight with a plausibly implausible plot. That would be how a product-tester inadvertently comes between two top-flight CIA agents who are also best friends. Yes, itís ridiculous. Itís also designed to be -- and is-- a prime example of pure escapist fun.

The woman is Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a crack evaluator of consumer goods pushed back onto the dating scene by her best friend, Trish (Chelsea Handler) via an online dating site. Trish wants to live vicariously through Lauren. Lauren worrys over becoming a weirdoĎs skin suit. Her profile, full of creative liberties, captures the interest of Tuck (Tom Hardy), a single father with yearnings for a cozy life of connubial bliss. His best friend, FDR (Chris Pine), has his own doubts about online dating and volunteers himself to be close at hand during Tuckís first date with Lauren in case he needs, as he puts it, extraction. The date goes well, though briefly, and thereby starts the wacky fun. Instead of picking up a stranger at the video store heís staked out, FDR runs into Lauren, who has dropped in to find an eveningís diversion. Though FDR is diverting, and though she charms him with her deft dissecting of his dating/hunting skills, she turns him down flat. Of course this charms him even more.

In short order, FDR and Tuck discover that they are both infatuated with the same woman, though she is blissfully unaware that they know each other. They draw up a gentlemanís agreement about how to compete for her, which promptly falls apart, as does their friendship. Bad timing. Their nemesis (Til Schweiger) is in town and he doesnít have romance on his mind.

There is a delightful exploited juxtaposition between the smooth efficiency of the two guys while taking out a hard target amid mayhem and gunfire, and their reversion to clumsy adolescence when it comes to competing against each other. As for the dilemma of choosing between FDRís dazzling player and Tuckís soulful sincerity, Lauren uses Trish as a sounding board, one who equates making the most of such an enviable situation as Laurenís duty to Gloria Steinem and the soccer moms who, like Trish, is living vicariously through Lauren. Though Witherspoon is feisty and bemused with an air of smarts and adulthood about her rather than Barbie-doll confusion, Handler all but steals the film. With her acerbically deadpan delivery that smacks of a desperate boredom with her own life, she adds a twisted sort of balance to the dewy-eyed romance going on all around her.

The action is as quick-paced as the wit, be it the requisite posh party scene that becomes a carefully choreographed brouhaha of blazing guns and flying fists, the painfully recurring run-ins Lauren has with her ex and his new fiancee, or the two teams Tuck and FDR recruit in-house to suss out what Lauren is looking for in a man. One such moment includes a suspiciously bright glow in the nether reaches of the thermal outlines of Lauren and her beau. No one comments, but the awkward tension is wickedly droll.

THIS MEANS WAR whips through its tropes with a devilish insouciance and a surprising warmth. The best trick it pulls off is that it manages to make both those elements work both together and separately.

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