Let’s get the obvious out of the way: For around a year now, Mr. & Mrs. Smith has been tabloid fodder of the most salacious sort — two of Hollywood’s biggest, sexiest stars playing husband and wife; inevitable rumors of on-set romance bolstered by the sudden announcement that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were splitting. Is this the film that sank America’s most beloved celebrity marriage? I don’t know and frankly I don’t care; it’s none of my business who may or may not have slept with whom. What I do care about is that they made one hell of a movie.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith is one of those films that bizarrely and successfully combines two genres that seemed thoroughly incompatible — the screwball comedy and the James Bond-style action thriller. What makes it work — what almost always makes genre fusions work, when they do — is that the two styles are so completely joined in event and theme as to be inseparable. At its heart, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is what philosopher Stanley Cavell called a “comedy of remarriage” — a story about a couple who intend to go their separate ways but soon learn that they are far happier together (see The Awful Truth , His Girl Friday , et al.). But just as important is the action thriller element, which takes the slapstick comedy of the screwball genre to a heady, over-the-top new level, making it a literal war of the sexes. The film sets up an allegory about people married to their jobs — it suggests that a cold-blooded assassin is really just the most extreme sort of Type-A personality — that literalizes all our metaphors for marital problems. The characters can’t communicate with each other because they really can’t communicate — they mustn’t blow their cover. When they both believe the other is a betrayer, an enemy, they don’t just wish they could kill them, they try their damndest to do the job, literally destroying their perfect, all-American home in the process.
Clearly, the script isn’t subtle, but it is sly. The dialogue is arch and pointed in the way of classic screwball, and it gets right what almost all post-Production Code attempts at screwball comedy haven’t — it’s full of the double- and triple-entendres that gave the dialogue layers of meaning for the audience to parse out. Granted, you’d never hear Carole Lombard or Joel McCrea making the blow-job and bondage references that pop out of Jolie and Pitt’s mouths, but their lines contain the veiled implications and intents that are essential to the genre. It’s not what you’d expect from Simon Kinberg, whose only previously produced screenplay was for xXx: State of the Union and who served as a script doctor on such bon mot-free productions as Elektra and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. (I’ve read that there were uncredited rewrites by Kieran and Michelle Mulroney, as well as Jez Butterworth.)
Pitt and Angelina Jolie play John and Jane Smith (aliases? nah), superficially a bored suburban couple with tedious but lucrative jobs and a failing marriage. See, they keep a lot of secrets from each other because they both happen to be assassins — though neither knows this about the other — working for competing agencies. To allay the suspicions of their supposedly normal spouses, each maintains an elaborate web of deceit; they’re even willing to hint at adulterous affairs in order to keep the other distracted. Their preternaturally honed abilities are hard to keep under wraps though, and each is constantly on the verge of discovery. When both are assigned to the same target, they come into direct conflict, exposing their identities and pitting them against each other in a winner-take-all showdown that forces them to question what part of their relationship may have ever been real.
If that sounds hokey, don’t worry; this is a film that has little use for sentiment. That its focus is on bringing the audience pleasure rather than pathos is largely attributable to the director, Doug Liman, whose tight but breezy work on Swingers, Go, and The Bourne Identity has established him as the go-to guy in Hollywood for films that require an almost impossible balance of tone. With their amoral protagonists and narrative improbabilities, every film he’s done could easily have become boring or offensive hackwork in the wrong hands, but in each case Limon has managed to achieve a lightness that allowed questionable characters and plot devices to flicker past the audience without alienating us. Mr. & Mrs. Smith, too, has a big conundrum at its center — how do two smart, effective assassins manage to live side by side for years without either suspecting — but Liman’s fleet-footed direction keeps us too distracted to be bothered by the question.
There remains, though, an even more taxing issue for him to tackle: how to show a husband and wife trying to kill each other without conjuring up ugly, distasteful images of Burning Bed-type domestic violence? Well, for starters, how about giving the characterization a feminist slant — making the wife smarter, more aggressive, and more gifted than the husband in almost every way? Jane Smith is an unbelievably good fit for Jolie, with her air of supreme self-sufficiency, potent but slightly strange sexual energy, and waspish Barbie doll figure. Jolie has played an action movie vamp before, of course — she’s Laura Croft fer Chrissake! — but absent the questionable English accent and working with a co-star of the same magnitude, she seems impossibly at ease.
Like Jolie, Pitt makes knowing use of his public persona to maintain audience sympathy and screw with our expectations. He’s the goofy but impossibly handsome prom king who might have wound up working in a car dealership or — as his cover suggests — being a construction engineer, had he not stumbled into becoming an assassin. Whether or not they engaged in behind-the-scenes hanky panky, the contrast between his insouciant, one-of-the-boys manner and her sleek sexiness makes for great, compelling onscreen chemistry, full of the complications of love and attraction versus irritation and bemusement that afflict real marriages. They become almost the apotheoses of the contemporary American man and woman, in combat in the office and in the home.
In The Bourne Identity, Liman conjured straight action sequences similar to the ones that here he plays for laughs. The film is full of inside-joke allusions to the Mission: Impossible and James Bond films and uses a home exploding or an assassin-as-speedbump as punch lines to jokes that should feel sick but don’t. The miracle of Liman’s balancing act is that by any usual standard, the Smiths are both terrible human beings, yet the whole situation is cartoonish enough and Pitt and Jolie are so charismatic that we don’t care; we love them anyway.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()