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Problems at Home

Brad and Angelina are out to kill each other. You may want a piece of them, too.

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The consequences of marital discord in Mr. & Mrs. Smith go way beyond sleeping on the couch or maintaining icy silence at the breakfast table. Thanks to a cartoonish premise by British screenwriter Simon Kinberg -- and the dictates of the summer movie marketplace -- the battling Smiths of the title go at each other with knives, fists, high-caliber automatic weapons and enough explosives to level Baghdad -- or at least their own handsome white neo-colonial in the suburbs. Here is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf inflated to lethal proportion, The War of the Roses reimagined as World War III.

The prospect of two gossip-column stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie exterminating each other -- if only onscreen -- has to be appealing to any clear-thinking person who laments the excesses and stupidities of celebrity culture. Were America's future to be both Pitt-less and Angelina-free, we might all be a lot better off -- at least until Ashton Kutcher and Paris Hilton style their way into the void.

Alas, the Smiths don't knock each other off at all. On the contrary, they eventually join forces and turn their considerable firepower on common enemies -- a development not exactly satisfying and completely predictable. Of course, how much wattage can a Pitt-Jolie matchup generate if the two don't finally wind up in the sack, bullet-scarred but happy?

As a pretext for the familiar orgy of violence that precedes their kiss-and-make-up, these Smiths -- John and Jane -- are made out to be hired assassins working for separate, unnamed organizations, unaware of each other's résumés and married to each other only as a mutually convenient cover story. To establish the killers' credentials, the movie sends Mr. Smith to a New York Irish bar for a back-room poker game, where he calmly kills everyone at the table, and Mrs. Smith to a hotel suite to seduce an arms dealer, then snap his neck with one deft twist. Accept that fantasy if you must -- also the plot-advancing bit about the Smiths' companies' orders to kill each other. As late-spring temperatures rise, so must our tolerance for Hollywood nonsense. By the time hypercompetitive John and Jane wreck their SUVs and annihilate their tree-shaded manse -- he has about 200 guns in the basement; she keeps hers on cool secret trays behind the oven -- director Doug Liman (The Bourne Supremacy) has long since wearied us with his special-effects detonations and synthetic mass murder.

Kinberg (XXX: State of the Union) means to amuse us with jokes based on the cynical fiction of the Smith union. Our couple may be hit people of great skill, but they go to a marriage counselor. Mr. Smith is not above complaining about the new curtains in the dining room. And the missus knows how to drop an inane compliment or two when the neighbors invite them over for a deadly dull cocktail party. In fact, this is the most original and pleasing element of an otherwise ordinary summer action movie -- the way it savages middle-class piety and white suburban contentment with the twin weapons of deadpan humor and ultraviolent farce. (Take note that one massacre plays out in a high-end home-furnishings store.)

Almost no Hollywood movie gets built from the ground up these days, so it's hard to know how deeply the current Mr. & Mrs. Smith might anguish the late Alfred Hitchcock (probably not much), who in 1941 directed a highly uncharacteristic screwball comedy with the same title. In that movie, the peerless comedienne Carole Lombard and leading man Robert Montgomery portrayed a quarrelsome New York couple who discover that their marriage isn't legal, decide to separate, and then discover that they can't live without each other. Lombard did not model a black vinyl mini-dress exposing a fair portion of her buttocks, as Jolie does here. And no one blew up three Manhattan skyscrapers. Otherwise, though, the 2005 version is pretty much the same as the Hitchcock. Copycats.

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