Cool but silly, intermittently stylish but thoroughly senseless, Doug Liman’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a high-concept blockbuster of the worst kind, a hybrid of every popular Hollywood genre: screwball comedy, action-adventure, spy-thriller, and marital drama. Star-driven, this summer movie displays the charisma and good looks of Brad Pitt and Anjelina Jolie to an advantage; Jolie has never looked more beautiful or sexier.
Simon Kinberg’s screenplay is a mishmash of movieish clichs, with little concern for story, logic, and credibility—even by standards of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Indeed, the strong chemistry between the stars can’t cover the big hole at the center of this fraudulent movie, which is plotless.
Despite major flaws, reaching for the twentysomething and thirtysomething crowds, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” should prove a hot (or is it cool) date movie. Though there is not much overt sex in the film, there are enough double-entendres, and the sight of Pitt and Jolie in white underwear and tight outfits is never less than enticing.
Overhyped even before it went into production, when Nicole Kidman dropped out due to scheduling problems, and constantly in the news due to rumors of romantic affair between Pitt and Jolie, the media blitz spiraled out of control, when Pitt and Jennifer Aniston announced their separation, and the cast was reassembled to shoot a different ending as late as March.
I mention this seemingly superfluous staff to indicate that, by the time we saw “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” we had to work hard to separate the hype and media overkill of the troubled production from what was presented on screen.
Liman, a gifted director, who has made some small and edgy indies (“Swingers,” “Go”), seems to think to bigger and louder is better, for the mayhem in his picture just piles up, resulting in action sequences that involve the massive destruction of restaurants, department stores, Beverly Hills estates. But to what effect
The central idea, unhappily married assassins who find themselves falling in love all over again when each is assigned to kill the other, is not as novel as the filmmakers would like to believe. John Huston’s “Prizzi’s Honor,” with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, had a similar idea, and this kind of broad, nasty, and rude comedy of marriage is also to be found in Danny DeVitto’s “The War of the Roses.”
Of the two-hour actioner, which is overlong by at least a reel, about 15 or 20 minutes are witty and fun to watch. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” has a particularly good beginning, a therapy session with a faceless psychiatrist, in which the two sparring spouses face the camera while discussing their marital problems. They reveal disagreement, or selective memory, about basic facts, such as the length of their marriage. John seems to think that it’s five years, whereas Jane holds it’s six.
A flashback, entitled “Five or Six Years Ago,” depicts the cutesy circumstances of the Smiths’ first encounter. John and Jane meet in Bogota, Colombia, where amidst a fiery revolution, they ignite in a dance marked by adrenaline, attraction and mystery. The first time John and Jane dance, they are both leading; sometimes he leads, sometimes she leads. Theyre competing, and they don’t know who the other person is and the excitement and energy of the space informs the dance.
Cut to the present and the mundane life of the Smiths. John and Jane are an ordinary suburban couple, going through a listless, passionless marriage. Each is hiding something the other would kill to know: Mr. and Mrs. Smith are highly paid, incredibly efficient assassins, and they work for competing organizations. As viewers, we are not expected to ask whom do they work for, or whom do they kill “Mrs. & Mrs. Smith” carries amorality to an extreme, celebrating it as the ultimate statement of being cool.
After theyre married, the Smiths learn that there are no accidents when it comes to love. The couple continues a ridiculous charade that leads to marital tedium. For a while, the comedy grabs our attention through the stylish looks and glamorous conduct of the sexy stars, who are meant to play extraordinary characters experiencing the same “ordinary” problems as other couples whose utterly sexless marriage is on the rocks.
The Smiths’ life as a couple is clouded by secrecy, lies, and ennui. This is reflected in their home, which symbolizes their dying relationship. It’s a space overflowing with comforts that exemplify the height of style but with no real warmth. Their house, a beautiful but gilded cage, keeps them from really experiencing each other
Since John and Jane are assassins, the house holds many secrets. John’s innocent-looking tool shed reveals a cellar-sized supply room containing stacks of cash, plus rocket launchers, grenades, and dozens of handguns. Jane’s oven, too, is a secret repository of high-tech weaponry. The “twist” is that neither Jane nor John is aware of the other’s covert stashes, until their fateful showdown inside the home.
Once their covers are blown, the Smiths discover that no marriage can survive without love and trust, and a clear knowledge of what one’s spouse does for a living. But first, they play a dangerous cat-and-mouse game, culminating in an explosive fight, a “dance of death” inside their suburban home. The Smiths discover a new source of excitement in their marriage when theyre hired to assassinate each other. When their lies are stripped away, and their secrets are exposed, they are liberated and at the same time, vulnerable. Ironically, from that moment forward, the movie becomes about the characters feeling safer, as life becomes increasingly more dangerous.
Most of the film constitutes one big spectacle, in which Mr. and Mrs. Smith put their formidable skills to work and their marriage to the ultimate test. But unfortunately, the transitions, from fighting to lovemaking, from wanting to kill each other to finally discovering their real passion for each other, are repetitive and increasingly more and more preposterous. Indeed, the movie’s biggest problem is its tone, or how to vacillating the sexy tone of the routine stuff (dinner at 7, table manners) with the action-adventure elements, which are filled with globetrotting action, state-of-the-art special effects, and stunts, some of which performed by the actors themselves.
This “big-event” large-budget summer picture actually had modest origins. Simon Kinberg wrote the script’s first draft for his Master’s thesis at Columbia University. The idea came from his passion for Hong Kong action films, as evident in his contribution to “XXX: State of the Union” and “X-Men 3.” Then listening to his friends’ stories about their marriage counseling, which sounded like mercenary experiences, Kinberg decided to graft a marriage comedy on the frame of an actioner. Kinberg and Liman set out to make a cool, sleek, sexy, and kinetic movie, a mix (more of a mishmash) of action, adventure, romance, comedy, and thrills.
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is meant to be about danger, sex, and misunderstanding, with the filmmakers substituting the traditional romantic comedy devices with big action set pieces, bombs, and explosions. It feels as if, even before detailing his characters, Kinberg structured the story around the action sequences, trying to find parallels between the action and the construction of a successful marriage. Unfortunately, the movie can’t decide if action is secondary to the character, or vice versa. In the film’s first half, the characters are primary and the action secondary, but the ratio is reversed in the second half.
The film asks the question of how do assassins, blessed with exceptional physical abilities, deal with their marital problems It’s based on the amoral, dubious notion that being a top assassin is a much easier lifestyle compared with the rigors of keeping a marriage afloat. The protagonists may be highly trained and glamorous assassins, but, ultimately, they are just like their viewers, since they have experience the same problems faced by all couples: boredom, lies, and soul-deadening routine. Liman, takes a duo capable of superhuman feats, and drops them in the middle of suburbia, making them face the same “routine” problems that we all do.
Since there’s not much text, perhaps one should dwell on the subtext. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” implies that if your really ant to get to know your spouse, you better try to kill him or her first, because only under life threat, the real personalities and identities reveal themselves.
Indeed, more is disclosed about the characters in the film’s last 15 minutes than in the narrative that precedes it. John lies about his education (he didn’t go to MIT, he went to Notre Dame) and Jane about her parents (she’s a Jewish orphan, and the “father” at their wedding was a hired actor). The story is about a married couple that, assigned to hunt down each other, are forced them to pay attention to each other for first time! Learning the truth about one another, John and Jane Smith fall in love all over again.
Listening to the filmmakers, you may get the notion that they have made a relationship, push-and-pull movie about a couple who want to be together, but circumstances interfere, and yet somehow they have to work their way through it if they want to stay together. Actress Jolie even sees Mr. and Mrs. Smith as a feminist statement about empowerment: “It’s important for women to feel that they can be strong on their own, but it’s great to be involved with a film where a man and a woman need each other and are better when theyre together. There’s something great about people functioning as a team that movies haven’t focused on in a while.”
Apparently, John and Jane’s secret lives don’t leave much room for friendships, for there are only few secondary characters. The closest thing John has to a friend is a neurotic colleague, Eddie (Vince Vaughan who delivers the film’s best lines), who lives with his mom because she’s the only woman he can trust. Eddie and John work in the same field but are very different in manner. Eddie is frenetic and constantly arcing with energy.
Like John, Jane’s circle of friends is limited to basically one confidant, Jasmine (Kerry Washington) a co-worker who disapproves of Jane’s evolving relationship with John. Jane doesn’t allow herself to get close to anyone because that would make her vulnerable. For Jane, getting close to someone is the most dangerous thing. The film’s fifth character is Benjamin Danz (Adam Brody), a low-level operative who figures in John and Jane’s ever-changing lives as assassins and as spouses.
Pitt and Jolie have appeared in action films before, but separately. For this picture, they had to learn how to move in tandem with fully loaded pump shotguns, crossing each other, running into houses, breaking and covering an area, shooting at moving multiple targets. Here, theyre outfitted with the newest high tech weapons, including cutting-edge, non-lethal Taser and stun guns, and display a variety of the skills, such as firing rockets, driving cord bikes, rock climbing.
The film’s action, comedy and romance involve not only gunplay, but also dance. Inspired by the ballet-like grace of Hong Kong action films, Kinberg borrows ideas from musicals and actioners. The action is meant play like an exploration of character, but it doesn’t. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” falls victim to a repetitive and tiresome structure: Big action sequences are interrupted by semi-witty marital disputes and occasionally funny one-liners and double entendres.
Imitating musicals, where the characters express their feelings and passion in dance, because they can’t express then with dialogue, John and Jane break into gunplay or a chase sequence, which is an expression of where their characters are in the context of their relationship.
The film’s biggest action sequence, in the third act, is the most choreographed. The sequence unfolds, then explodes, at a fictitious home improvement store, shot in a vacant IKEA warehouse in Torrance, California. The filmmakers combine a mixture of styles for each character for the finale. John makes up his plan of action as he goes along, whereas Jane is more succinct and direct in her approach. Jane uses a sniper rifle whereas John is blasting away as he moves around.
The “happy” ending, in which the Smiths join forces and reconcile, is fake and phony. Up to this point, the Smiths were having problems working together, but now theyve solved their underlying issues and are learning to work together as partners, like a smooth machine.
If the action set pieces of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” do not serve the story, it’s because there is no story. Admittedly, it’s a tough challenge to coming up with hilarious comedy beats within scenes that would still make John and Jane look like killers. Which is another way of saying that the film is not successful at combining its two central ingredients: comedy and action.