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Meet the Smiths

August 28, 2006
Frosty, yum.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Frosties from Wendy’s. They’re refreshing and enjoyable to eat, but so artificial that it’s hard to imagine organic ingredients were ever involved in their creation. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a lot like that.

To update those those who have spent the last year adrift at sea or hostage to Islamic militants, the plot of Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the highest of high concepts: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play John and Jane Smith, a bored married couple who both happen to be super-assassins working for rival agencies (don’t ask for any more details; this movies’ politics are a shade less sophisticated than Spy v. Spy). The catch is, after five or six years of marriage–Mr. Smith can’t quite remember–each has been given their spouse as a target. Sex, violence and one-liners ensue. There’s not a genuine human moment in the whole thing, but it succeeded in its modest goal of keeping me entertained for two hours.

The key to its success is that director Doug Liman doesn’t work against the absurdity of the premise. He knows no amount of dramatic exposition will ever make us buy Pitt and Jolie as a suburban married couple, so why even try? Instead, he plays Simon Kinberg’s script as a spectacular farce, a la Barry Sonenfeld’s Men in Black.

The two beautiful starbots bicker over minor domestic issues–passing the salt, the new drapes–and we laugh partially because of the characters’ violent subtext, but partially because the idea of Angelina Jolie washing the dishes or Brad Pitt mowing the lawn is so ridiculous. These stars are so rich and famous that not only do they not know the people who wash their dishes or mow their lawns, they probably don’t know the person who tells their dishwashers and landscapers to wash the dishes and mow the lawn.

No matter. The pleasure is in watching the stars keep a straight face through it all. When Mr. and Mrs. Smith find out the truth about each other, the movie devolves into a more straightforward action vehicle, although Liman and Kinberg find ever-more-preposterous ways to keep the stars’ banter going. Adam Brody and Vince Vaughn both make amusing supporting characters, each playing a more obnoxious version of the part that made him famous. This is not the sort of movie where anyone is asked to stretch outside their range.

One of the more interesting aspects of Liman’s ironic approach is that he never courts our sympathy. There are no dramatic interludes, no scenes of either star being tortured by a super-villain, no attempts to illustrate their angst in a serious way. Neither the script nor the acting develops the Smiths beyond the level of well-dressed cartoons. And yet, somehow, for some reason, I cared about the two. More precisely, I cared about seeing the two stay together.

Some reviews have attributed that to on-screen chemistry, but I don’t buy it. The script is too mocking for that. When I root for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, I’m not rooting for the characters, I’m rooting for the romantic future of Pitt and Jolie. If that seems ridiculous, it’s no more ridiculous than wanting to see Albert Pujols hit a home run or Tiger Woods win a tournament. What other achievement or accolade do they need? They’ve already accomplished so much, but we want to see them accomplish more, because we hunger to see perfection achieved. Pitt and Jolie are similar, only their talent isn’t in hitting baseballs or making impossible shots, it’s in simply looking fabulous.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that Mr. and Mrs. Smith would work beautifully as a graphic novel. Its preposterous premise wouldn’t bat an eye in a world of undead avenging motorcyclists and floating sentient cities. And its overblown action would seem perfectly normal. But most importantly, its arch dialogue would be right at home in speech balloons. If anything, a graphic novel could improve on the film version by giving equal time to John and Jane (the film tends to overweight John’s perspective).

It will also be interesting to see how future audiences respond to this movie once (not if) Pitt and Jolie break up. Without that investment in the stars’ personal lives, I suspect the movie’s silliness will play as stupidity and its irony will seem smug. Much like a Frosty, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is best consumed fresh.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. bro permalink
    August 29, 2006 6:55 pm

    coincidently i also saw the smiths this weekend, although maybe its not such a coincidence since hbo apparently has decided to stop buying any worthwhile movies, so this was the best of a bad on demand lot. anyway, i wanted to like this since some of my favorite movies involve pitt or doug liman, and the concept should have been cant-miss. what this movie proves beyond a doubt is 1. after this and bourne identity, liman simply cannot direct action sequences 2. pitt is much better as a wacky supporting player than a straight star (see 12 monkeys and fight club, or even seven since anyone would look wacky next to morgan freeman’s gravitas) 3. whoever the screenwriter is should be shot for ruining a set up so rich with comedic and/or dramatic potential. The tv shows Alias and Buffy the Vampire Slayer both used a similar device, where intimates are unknowingly opposed to each other in their work life, much more successfully

  2. August 29, 2006 8:17 pm

    Interesting you bring up this point about Pitt. A couple other examples that support your argument are his roles in Snatch, Fight Club, True Romance and Thelma and Louise.

    But the ultimate character actor miscast as a leading man is Ben Affleck. His leading roles are absolutely abominable–Pearl Harbor, Gigli, that dreadful Christmas movie with James Gandolfini–but his supporting roles are fantastic: Good Will Hunting, Dazed and Confused, Boiler Room, Dogma, Shakespeare in Love.

    The reason that both are always cast as leads is because they’re so darn good-looking, but that’s the problem as well. Affleck especially is too good-looking, too clean-cut to be an engaging protagonist; but when he plays against his looks–particularly when he plays a smug asshole–things get interesting.

    Pitt is a little different. Pitt, I think, just isn’t particularly interested in his lead roles. He’d much rather play a weirdo. This is known as the Johnny Depp phenomenon, although the first and greatest example was Marlon Brando.

  3. bro permalink
    August 30, 2006 5:37 pm

    i counldn’t agree more with depp but marlon brando? i assume you’re referring to his supporting roles in superman, apocalypse now and the godfather and maybe the freshman, but i think you’re selling hime a little short as a lead- on the waterfront, streetcar name desire, and the wild ones to name three stellar lead performances off the top of my head

  4. Brad Glaser permalink
    August 31, 2006 1:26 pm

    Ryan really needs to check in if the dicussion touches on the relative attractiveness of Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck.

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