A film review by Craig J. Koban
MR. AND MRS. SMITH
MR. AND MRS. SMITH
2005, PG-13, 119 mins.
Brad Pitt / Jane Smith:
Angelina Jolie / Eddie: Vince Vaughn / Jasmine: Kerry Washington
/ Father: Keith David /
Martin Coleman: Chris Weitz / Suzy Coleman: Rachael Huntley / Benjamin: Adam Brody
It’s funny how the modern gossip machine operates. It seemingly finds more interest and validity on the comings and goings of massively successful stars and fails to yield and take a serious look at their respective work. That is primarily why I have a great level of moral disdain for such self-proclaimed “informative” and “revealing” entertainment shows like ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and ACCESS HOLLYWOOD that revel in their annoying righteousness. Their very existence seems precluded on whether or not two celebrities hooked up during the making of a film and sort of fail to comment on whether or not the film in question is…well…any damn good to begin with.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH seems to be the poster film for the gossip wranglers over the last year, with its two leads – Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt – apparently and allegedly engaging in a sort of neo-Taylor n’ Burton-esque bit of back stage foreplay. Now, I am not going to go much further here and comment on the validity or qualified significance of such non-sense (which is basically what stories like this are to me). If anything, the on and off-screen chemistry has been brandied about in the trades for several months, which has earned this film tons of free publicity, not to mention a $50 million dollar opening weekend at the box office. So, I am not going to answer the “did they or didn’t they” off screen, but rather I am going to answer the real probing question about the film – is it good? In short, not really.
I reluctantly say “not really” as more of a response of disappointment than with contempt. MR. AND MRS. SMITH has a solid core. Doug Liman directs it with precision and a glossy professionalism. He has made many fine films, like the terrific action thriller THE BOURNE IDENTITY, which you may remember focused an integral amount of its time on it’s main amnesiac hero – Jason Bourne, despite the fact that it also had some sensational set pieces, like its virtuoso car chase. Liman also helmed GO in 1999, which was also a slick and hip Pulp Fiction inspired cult comedy. His launching pad work was easily 1996’s SWINGERS, one of the funniest films of the 1990’s about young Generation X’ers trying to hit it big in L.A., not to mention that it was a relative bachelor's bible about how to be "money" and what to do and not do with members of the opposite sex.
Then there is the cast itself, which features a dream pairing if I ever thought there could be such a thing. Ensuring the ultimate satisfaction of both sexes in the audience, we have the hunky and sly Brad Pitt and the sultry and obsessively sexy Angelina Jolie. Both are actors that I have admired in the past (Pitt was insidiously wacky in 12 MONKEYS and sarcastic and cunning in FIGHT CLUB), whereas Jolie was more effective, I thought, in some of her smaller roles like in PUSHING TIN and especially was engaging in her Oscar winning role in GIRL, INTERRUPTED. Then, of course, we get the support of Vince Vaughn, re-teaming with Liman from his stint on SWINGERS, whose manic, feral, and insanely funny improvisational wit always manages to leave me in stitches. With this talent on board and Liman serving as quarterback, how could this film go wrong?
For starters, saying that this film is a textbook thesis in style over substance is sort of a kind understatement. MR. AND MRS. SMITH does benefit from the effortless chemistry of Jolie and Pit, who sort of have the repartee of a romantic duo that has been working together for years. Yet, no amount a gifted and obvious chemistry, not to mention overt sex appeal, can save a film from its deficiencies. The falling grace of MR. AND MRS. SMITH is one primarily of tone, or lack of focus there of. If you look at the film’s one note concept – that of a husband and wife that share secret lives as assassins and manage to keep from each other for 5 (or is it 6?) years - then it's quite clear that the story is kind of nonsense to begin with. However, I am willing to suspend my disbelief, as I have seen other films that stretch the tall tale meter to inhuman lengths. No, the type of film that surrounds this concept has a great setup by lacks payoff altogether. Watching the film is kind of like looking at an amoeba - it sort of is a form shifting mass with an incoherent and unidentifiable appearance and lacks any real discerning details. In other words, MR. AND MRS. SMITH is a globular mishmash of different genres without a real focus or concentration on any of them.
I think that to stretch the film’s zany implausibilities to acceptable levels would have been serviceable if (a) it was done as a sharp and intelligent satire and/or (b) if it was done as a sort of odd and darkly funny black comedy. The film really tries to focus on the redundancy and normalcy that its two characters experience as a husband and wife that live in middle-upper class suburbia. It also tries to detail the more peculiar and wicked humour that is derived from their marital spats and battles when both husband and wife discover that they're trained killers. I kept on thinking of two vastly superior satires and dark comedies that, I think, MR. AND MRS. SMITH tries and fails to emulate in tone and mood. There was last year’s THE INCREDIBLES, which was funny in how it tried to tell a story of how superheroes would cope with living with normal lives in America in family units. That film embraced the naturally satiric elements with its themes and succeeded. Then there was the edgy and very dark comedy THE WAR OF THE ROSES, a comedy where the irreconcilable differences between husband and wife were taking to increasingly sombre, twisted, and morally repugnant levels.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH misses so many opportunities for good suburbia and family satire. It also fails to be really tense and edgy with its material like WAR OF THE ROSES. ROSES did not play safe and was not afraid of taking its characters down paths that many audience members would otherwise have not liked. MR. AND MRS. SMITH plays it too safe and seems to be the victim of not only a PG-13 rating (which absolves it from being too gritty and malevolent), but also of the A-typical mid-summer action film theatrics, which seems to focus more on John Woo-inspired moments of violence that get too numerous, too tedious, and ultimately too redundant real fast.
On top of that, Jolie and Pitt don’t invest enough of their animalistic intensity and pathos into their characters. They are appealing, wonderful to look at, and flaunt their bodies to their fullest, but their performances are sort of on autopilot mode and they cruise safely on them instead of reaching a bit higher for the sheer lunacy and craziness that their characters needed. Pitt and Jolie almost play the roles a bit too straight, which further undermines the dark comedy. When Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner fought, they did so with a bravura level of wackiness and silly contempt. Pitt and Jolie don’t have nearly as much fun with their roles, who both seem more focused on looking good all the time and not letting lose and looking, well, daft and ridiculous. Pitt’s part alone could have benefited from Vaughn’s narcissistic persistence and zany comic energy.
The film does start off promising, as we are introduced to John (Pitt) and Jane (Jolie) Smith and they are in marriage counseling. Apparently, the spark has gone out of their relationship. We are slowly introduced to how they met. They met where all young couples do, in Bogota, and after their meet-cute they soon got married and settle down to a modestly affluent and well-off suburban lifestyle. They go about their days with the same level of frivolousness and repetition, the only major difference being this – an average day for both of them involves secretly going to their “real” day jobs, which includes undercover work for secret organizations and killing people (at one point, John kills in the middle of a poker game while Jane uses her sexuality as a weapon and snaps a man’s throat while teasing him with a dominatrix outfit). When they get back home, all is back to normal, and they have the type of nice house that all couples have. You know, the one where machine guns and cash are hidden in a pit beneath the tool shed and knives and other stabbing weapons are hidden in the refrigerator.
Amazingly, neither of the two have found out (for reasons the film never really deals with) about their respective professions. That is until they both receive similar instructions to travel to the desert and take out the same target. Eventually, through the murkiness and convoluted plot that ensues, they both discover their real identities and that they both were targets for each other. Well, it seems that they both are in one of those “if I tell you what I do, then I’ll have to kill you” situations, and the two get involved in a cat and mouse game of extermination. John has some self-doubt, and even manages to escape one violent incident with his “wife” and talks to his good friend Eddie (Vaughn). Eddie is another enforcer assassin, but he’s a petulant momma’s boy that still lives at home for his mom’s hospitality. When John tries to tell Eddie that Jane is trying to kill him, Vaughn responds with his trademark hilarity: “They all try to kill ya, slowly, painfully, awkwardly, question is…what are ya gonna do about it.”
Maybe Liman, Pitt, and Jolie could have taken something from Vaughn’s small, but inspired turn here. Vaughn plays his role for incredulous, broad, and ironic laughs, but everyone else comes across as so intense that they forget that they’re really making a comedy. Yes, Pitt and Jolie are as sexy and smoldering as ever, and they do manage to have some fun with their respective double entendres and moments of violent shenanigans. But the action repeats itself and the film’s stubborn focus on it is a disservice to the story and characters. The script itself tries to bale out of its genuine lack of satiric and dark jabs and instead offers up endless scenes of mindless action. By the time the film crawls through its two hour running time (a bit long, considering the complete simplicity and lack of good execution of its idea) we have sat through explosions, fights, stunts, halos of machine gun bullets, and so on and so on.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH starts off so frank and funny, but it never pays off in any real way. There is no sense of an underlying plot or narrative and the fight scenes, while hyperactive and fierce, get monotonous. The final battle, which pits Jane and John in huge firefight with many faceless enemies, lacks tension and dread altogether. This is a dark comedy that has already demonstrated a lack of a sick backbone, so even thinking that one or both could die never crossed my mind. With the Roses it was different entirely as their journey led them towards pessimism, vileness, and ugly consequences for them both, but with the Smiths you just know there’s light at the end of their tunnel.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH represents a really wasted effort by most of its participants. What we are left with is a film that sort of betrays the talents of its stars and director and forgets to be the type of gleefully and pungent amoral black comedy and satire that it was supposed to be. The film sidesteps all wit, intelligence, and sharp and pointed laughs it could have generated and goes for a lot of charmless and bombastic action scenes that I have seen too many countless times before. The film lacks a twisted and morose vibe and an insidiously cheerful abandon for decency. By the end, this film kind of chickens out and takes the safe trip down a road of action set pieces that reek in banality. Jolie and Pitt have undeniable chemistry to be sure, but this much-ballyhooed romantic kissy-touchy-feely blood drenched farce lacks it overall.