A Tale of Two Sweethearts
Alright, so that's a bit of an exaggeration, but go with me here for a little while, okay?
Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston are both back in movie theaters now with new movies, and while they're of different quality, they made me think about how differently these two actress' careers have evolved. Both at one time was America's Sweetheart, a beloved figure on the small and/or large screen, and yet, where one has gone right(er), the other seems to be totally off track.
Let's start with Reese. Her latest, This Means War, tells the story of an unlucky-in-love woman who is at the center of a love triangle involving two covert CIA agents (Chris Pine and Tom Hardy). That's right: Only in the movies would we be asked to believe that someone as gorgeous, vivacious, and seemingly together as Witherspoon, and two guys as attractive and smart as Pine and Hardy, have trouble finding a mate. The film is intended to be a comedy — Chelsea Handler plays Witherspoon's character's wisecracking sister — but the laughs are few and far between. The film is far-fetched, unexciting, and a real waste of these three actors' presence.
Watching This Means War, I couldn't help but wonder when the last time was that Witherspoon was in a good movie. It had to be 2005's Walk the Line, the film for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress. All of her better performances — that one, Election, Pleasantville, and, yes, Legally Blonde — were released almost a decade or more ago. These days, Witherspoon seems to be stuck in pretty bad movies — her last two, Rendition and How Do You Know, especially. It's a real shame, given how much promise she showed in those early roles. Given how good she's looked at awards shows lately, I'm thinking maybe Witherspoon should just stick to walking red carpets from now on. At least there we know she can make some excellent choices, and that she'll be worth watching.
Witherspoon's costar in How Do You Know, Paul Rudd, seems to have escaped from that mess unscathed. He's back on screen now in Aniston's latest, Wanderlust. In the film, Rudd and Aniston play a Manhattan couple down on their luck who choose to stay on a commune (sorry, I mean "intentional community") rather than with his loutish brother and sister-in-law. Co-written and directed by David Wain (Role Models), the film is no comedy classic, but it's good fun, with a cast (including Alan Alda, Kathryn Hahn, Malin Akerman, and Aniston's current off-screen squeeze, Justin Theroux) who all seem to be having a blast.
Like in her last movie, the very funny Horrible Bosses, Aniston isn't being asked to carry the film or do any heavy-lifting acting (Rudd is the real lead here). And that frees her to just act naturally and appealingly, showing her carefree side in one topless scene, and a looser sensibility in a scene where she's tripping out on hallucinogens. I don't know if it's because she's playing opposite Theroux or Rudd (with whom she starred in The Object of My Affection), or because she's part of a solid ensemble, but Aniston sure is enjoyable to watch here. Her performance and Rudd's, whose slow unravel is always fun, and their chemistry together, make Wanderlust worth seeing.
(For the record, this isn't to say that Aniston can't get serious or carry a movie — she's done both in films like The Good Girl and Friends with Money, and to a more limited degree in Marley and Me.)
It's been a long time since Witherspoon proved why she was a movie star and demonstrated why she received so much acclaim earlier in her career. Aniston doesn't always choose the best movies, but at least recently, her track record is much better, and that's probably why she remains one of America's Sweethearts — or at least one of mine. I'm giving This Means War a D+ and Wanderlust a B.