The following post contains spoilers for numerous Reese Witherspoon movies in which she makes horrible life choices involving bad relationships with terrible men.
My recent vacation began on a flight to Denver, sandwiched between an elderly couple and a small television screen showing the recent action-movie-slash-rom-com "This Means War." Trapped by fate and the lingering effects of a cup of iced coffee, I was too amped to sleep — so instead I watched Reese Witherspoon play Lauren, a lonely product testing executive who gets back into the dating world and promptly hooks up for two men: Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine). But wait! There's a catch: Tuck and FDR are best friends and co-workers! But wait! There's another catch: both Tuck and FDR are spies! Instead of protecting our country from international terrorist Til Schweiger, they're busy spying on Lauren and each other, because lapses in national security that could result in catastrophic loss of life are inherently funny.
As in-flight entertainment — or at least in-flight distraction — goes, "This Means War" was fine. It was also entirely predictable, at least until an ending in which — SPOILER ALERT — Lauren chooses unreliable ladies man FDR over affectionate, responsible Tuck. Granted, I may not be the best judge of male lovers' credentials, but this seemed like a questionable call. As soon as we landed, I brought in an expert: my wife, who was seated elsewhere on the plane. We quickly compared notes: yes, the film was okay; yes, the mix of comedy and action was awkward; yes, family-friendly airplane editing was not kind to Chelsea Handler's part; and, most importantly, yes, Lauren chose the wrong guy.
My wife was as surprised by the ending as I was. But the more we talked about it, the more we realized that while it seemed out of character for Lauren, it seemed very much in character for Witherspoon, whose onscreen persona is increasingly defined by her characters' terrible taste in men. It may have started as a strange quirk of timing and taste. Now, when considered over the course of her career, it seems to be a major facet of her star text.
"This Means War" is not the first time Witherspoon has spent an entire movie debating between two men and then walked away with the guy most of the audience felt was wrong for her. In "Sweet Home Alabama," Witherspoon's character returns home (to, uh, Alabama) in order to secure a divorce from her first husband (Josh Lucas). She's engaged to a new beau, played by Patrick Dempsey, who is intelligent, successful, handsome, and sensitive — everything her old flame was not (except handsome, of course. God, that Josh Lucas is one rugged man). Husband #1 doesn't want to sign the divorce papers, complications ensue, and on her wedding day Witherspoon leaves poor Dempsey at the altar to shack back up with Lucas. Just about everyone I have ever talked to about this movie — and before you say something, yes, I talk to people about "Sweet Home Alabama" on a fairly regular basis — thinks she makes the wrong decision.
Even if Witherspoon's heroines eventually pick the right guy in the end, they often need the entire film to understand something the audience recognizes instantly. In "How Do You Know," Witherspoon's Lisa repeatedly returns to the waiting arms of selfish, immature Matty (Owen Wilson), oblivious to the fact that everything she's ever wanted in a guy is right in front of her in the form of her new friend George (Paul Rudd). In "Water For Elephants" she pushes away the circus' warm-hearted veterinarian (Robert Pattinson) in favor of her belligerent, temperamental, abusive, sinister, evil, brutal, cruel, violent, vindictive ringmaster husband (Christoph Waltz). The audience sizes these two guys up in about six seconds. Witherspoon takes two hours.
In plots that don't force Witherspoon to choose between two guys, she often gravitates to one suitor who is totally wrong for her, if not a total psychopath. In "Fear," Witherspoon gets seduced by crazy stalker lunatic Mark Wahlberg. In "Cruel Intentions," she falls for Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe, Witherspoon's real-life husband for a period), a guy who pursues her initially as a way to sleep with his step-sister. I've never seen the 1998 movie "Twilight" but according to Wikipedia, Paul Newman plays a private eye who is hired by Witherspoon's character's parents to track her down after she moves in with her "sleazy boyfriend." Sounds about right. In this context, Witherspoon's love affair with Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash in "Walk the Line" looks like a storybook romance — even though it involves drinking, drug abuse, and lots of bad behavior.
Where are all these similarly confused women coming from? Do audiences enjoy watching Reese Witherspoon's life fall apart? Is she an onscreen martyr made to suffer so we can vicariously reflect on our own poor choices? Maybe, though most of the movies I've mentioned in this post have been flops — "This Means War" grossed just $54 million in the United States; "Water For Elephants" earned about $4 million more than that. So viewers haven't necessarily been all that receptive to these movies, but Witherspoon, who by all accounts is happily married to her second husband, has kept on making them. Her upcoming projects include Jeff Nichols' "Mud" where, according to Guy Lodge's review she plays the "burnt-out girlfriend" to a "convicted killer," Atom Egoyan's "Devil's Knot," in which she plays the ex-wife of the prime suspect in the real-life West Memphis 3 murder case, and an adaptation of the self-help book "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." Knowing Witherspoon, she'll wind up with a Plutonian.