[5 June 2006]
Watching Mr. & Mrs. Smith, it’s impossible not to think about the distinction some film scholars draw between the “cinema of attractions” and the classical Hollywood narrative. The latter has dominated American cinema for nearly a century, predicated on a dramatic arc of rising action, climax, resolution, and that whole familiar chart, and staffed with realistic characters who draw emotional investments from the audience. But before it usurped the screen, the former held sway, based entirely on plotless spectacle: silent movies of trains rushing at audiences, lovers kissing, or whatever exotic imagery could be captured for the Nickelodeon that week.
As Hollywood blockbusters continue to overrely on special effects at the expense of story, it’s easy to affiliate any given example with the cinema of attractions. But most of them make at least some pretense of character development, be it the conundrums of Frodo, Anakin Skywalker, Jason Bourne, or Jack and Rose on that sinking ship. Even Brett Ratner takes an occasional stab at it. Mr. & Mrs. Smith, though, strips away the niceties of the classical narrative form to revel in pure spectacle, and to surprisingly pleasurable effect. In the first few scenes Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie meet under dangerous circumstances, dance sultrily in the rain, respectively box and mountain climb, and stroll around scantily clad. Anyone waiting for character development might as well wait for Godot, because neither will be along shortly.
But was Beckett ever as fun as this? Watching two frighteningly perfect human specimens cavort, fight, and exorcise their marital demons on the corpses of a thousand dispatched nemeses makes for a surprisingly good time. There’s a plot, or hints of one, buried somewhere in the film’s 125 minutes, though it’s somewhat beside the point. To wit: unhappily married couple leads parallel concealed lives as assassins for hire, which they handle with all due discretion until they find themselves pitted against one another. The story even throws in a late-breaking “twist” of sorts, though it never bothers to formally clarify anything beyond the functional elements needed to propel itself from one scene to the next.
This sounds like a cynical, hackneyed mess, and it probably reads like one on paper, but with Jolie and Pitt making cardboard characters into two-dimensional flesh it plays out with considerable magnetism. These two are spectacle embodied, he with his twinkling eyes and chiseled body, she with her seductive lips and statuesque face (shot in profile so often that we gain an intimate knowledge of the mathematics of her jawline by the film’s halfway point). What they do or say is almost tangential; the action scenes exist solely to give director Doug Liman a backdrop for the splendor of his stars. In other films Pitt and Jolie have both proven themselves talented actors, but their roles here demand another form of craftsmanship entirely: the ability to perform as icons, inhabiting superhuman ciphers for two full hours, appearing in every scene without ever letting us imagine one of them might someday possess a single small flaw.
The film depends on this illusion for its success, or even its survival, and its heroic duo never disappoints. But they don’t carry the film alone; Jolie, after all, brought equal amounts of transcendent beauty and brawn into her role as Lara Croft, and the awful Tomb Raider movies slogged along through scene after turgid scene without effectively capitalizing on her sheer star power. So Liman deserves credit for understanding the supplementary nature of the action sequences and shooting them as such. No John Woo preoccupied with the logistics or complexities of shootouts, Liman keeps a tight lock on his Smiths, knowing we’d rather see the gleam in Jolie’s eye upon picking off an enemy than an ingenious causal chain of stunts and explosions. Which isn’t to suggest the action here lacks excitement, but only to note how suavely it’s pulled off.
This unrated “collector’s edition” of Mr. & Mrs. Smith offers a few extra minutes of running length, the highlight of which is surely the gusto with which our protagonists reconsummate their relationship after a brutal slugfest. It’s not much more revealing than the original film (celebrity skinwatchers would do well to stick to Gia and those paparazzi beach shots from the Brad-n-Gwyneth era), but it brings more raw animal passion to the screen than your average sterilized blockbuster ever dredges up. Besides that and a slightly tweaked ending, the most significant change is probably a cigarette Jolie smokes that was digitally removed from the theatrical version. Other extras, filling a whole second disc, prove revealing. Not just outtakes, but entire subplots are recovered, showing that the paring down of the film’s narrative to the bare essentials was intentional, and based upon recognition of Pitt/Jolie charisma as its driving force (indeed, cut from the final film were supporting roles by Angela Bassett, Terence Stamp, Keith David, and Jacqueline Bisset). Liman’s commentary track is engaging if conspicuously devoid of gossip, and we learn about the deliberation that went into the placement of the one f-word allotted to a PG-13 movie, as well as the conscientiousness about spousal abuse that governed the knock-down, drag-out brawl between the two stars (a well-placed concern dealt with effectively by making them complete physical equals who whomp each other with well-matched zest).
Mr. & Mrs. Smith is hardly a film for the ages. Naysayers could easily deride it as emblematic not of a hearkening back to the pre-embourgeoisement stage of film history, but rather of Hollywood’s disdain for nuance. That wouldn’t be factually incorrect so much as it would miss the point. There’s a right way and a wrong way to churn out a blockbuster; while we’re certainly justified in bemoaning the post-Jaws/Star Wars turn toward megabucks drivel that killed the 1969-1974 New American Cinema (easily the best half-decade in US film history), there’s nonetheless a qualitative difference between sleek, graceful attractions like Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the insufferable dreck that usually dominates the box office. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie both belong to that rare breed of performers that can function as both actor and movie star. Here they’re called upon only for the latter, and they display nothing but mastery of the form. It’s easy to refer to “chemistry” as something that just happens, but in actuality it requires precise calibrations (perhaps facilitated by offscreen experiments, but it’s a moot point). In this movie, the two form the decisive factors in a simple but satisfying equation that uncovers no new insights but pleases us with the meaningless bliss of a clever tautology.