Smash and Grab

Marriage of convenience: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 'Mr. and Mrs. Smith'
20th-Century Fox

I don't know where Simon Kinberg--script doctor for, ahem, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle--drew inspiration for his Mr. and Mrs. Smith screenplay. But I'd suggest the possible influence of a 2001 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Hapless vampire Spike discovers that he can hit the Slayer without the antiviolence chip in his head hitting him back--though Buffy can and does--and the hitting turns to demolition of the premises, and the demolition turns to sex, and it's bad news, baby--and good news, too. The show's creators meant the sex/violence conflation to be ugly, but many viewers, judging from internet fan sites, felt more excitement than revulsion--along with relief that no one was pretending anymore.

That explicit episode, called "Smashed," is powerful chemistry; not so Mr. and Mrs. Smith's strangely familiar scenario (which doesn't mean it's uninteresting). Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as feuding married assassins don't have the ferocious resonance of Buffy and Spike--even if the viewer adds in (as director Doug Liman seems to expect) what is known of the stars. Indeed, what intrigues most about Liman's movie is the deliberate transparency of the protagonists and the willful avoidance of almost any emotion that might connect the viewer to the characters (beyond what she already feels about the actors). Nothing is at stake. The plot and action are completely unbelievable.

Except, perhaps, as metaphor. Jane and John Smith live in a luxurious suburban home. They are a two-career family, no children. Each drives off in the morning and returns to dinner in the evening without more than a vague idea of what the other does in between. They are in couples therapy, because they don't talk, and because it's expected of them, and because it makes for a funny scene: these outlandishly beautiful people facing the camera, "confessing" with charming squeamishness that they seldom have sex. The viewer knows, as the Smiths will soon discover, that both husband and wife have secret lives: They are assassins working for competing companies. Then the companies order them to kill each other.

The assassination folderol makes a semi-amusing juxtaposition with the suburban lifestyle. (Brad's extensive weaponry resides under his tool shed, Angelina's inside her oven--puns no doubt intended.) Mostly the setup seems an excuse for Liman, who kick-started The Bourne Identity, to cleverly reference the Bond movies, Charlie's Angels, even Three Days of the Condor. Vince Vaughn, as Brad's co-worker/foil, offers his Swingers director more sardonic complaint; Kerry Washington gets much less time as Angelina's efficient office-mate. You could view the rival businesses as merciless multinationals or--with more evidence--as the warring categories "men" and "women." But it doesn't much matter: They remain amorphous. There is no hinting that Brad's and Angelina's targets deserve their deaths; they appear as props in an escalating joke.

Whether you find the joke funny depends, in part, on your tolerance for violence of no material consequence: This movie is so cynical about the entertainment of violence that it doesn't even try to rationalize it. The (numerous) killings are entirely symbolic; sex and violence are happily married in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Brad understands Angelina's 312 career assassinations as adulteries, as sex acts outside their union; his count, in the "high 50s, low 60s," is by comparison embarrassing. Liman has fashioned a romantic comedy in which verbal sparring has been replaced with fisticuffs and .45s. The usual couch seduction scene is replayed with punches and soccer kicks to the stomach--and the preview audience laughed and laughed.

I admire the filmmakers' audacity. Why not reinvent the romantic comedy's emotional battle as physical? Wouldn't I rather be plainly shown the amorality of cinematic violence than be emotionally manipulated into craving the "release" of it? Still, that laughter disturbs me. It isn't so much that people are laughing at a strong man kicking a weak woman: The movie is careful to make Angelina just as tough as, if not tougher than, Brad. And Buffy and Spike's boxing match held its amusing moments as well. But the humor--and the resonance--of "Smashed" comes out of the characterizations as much as the action. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is as cynical about characterization as it is about action and plot, which leaves the audience laughing either at the undermining of romance tropes (if I'm being generous) or at Brad Pitt kicking Angelina Jolie (if I'm not).

Brad is goofy and likable here, a less serious version of his Ocean's persona. His ease with physical comedy tickles silly scenes into buoyancy; his reaction shots and line readings--all mock disbelief--offset that tawny beauty enough to disarm. As for Angelina, she maintains her aloof cool even as the camera paws her curves. Maybe the movie's "tear your playhouse down" theme is about the alienating nature of the suburban dream: What a thrill to stop blindly obeying company (read: cultural) directives and just blow the big box apart. Yet there's also some sense that the house is Angelina (Brad "breaks in"). Liman (cynically) offers viewers the possibility of smashing the walls of Angelina's celebrity distance--the revenge of lustful planets on the sun.

In any case, you'd think the explosions, car chases, and gunfights that fill the second half--representing, as they are meant to, sexual combustion--would feel more arousing. Instead, they play like a series of parodic set pieces: Hmm, there's Bad Boys, there's John Woo and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It's all done very well, but without tension. What chance is there that Brad and Angelina will not survive? I don't mean together or even individually. But there will always be a Brad and an Angelina. (In my most cynical moments, I calculate the Jennifer/Brad/Angelina triangle as pure publicity.) Trust Liman, who has never shown a lack of savvy, to serve the American audience a heaping helping of sex, celebrity, and violence while making sure it leaves you hungry.

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