Brad Pitt can dance. And not just that silly tango he manages with Angelina Jolie, by way of illustrating the instant-sparks connection between their husband and wife characters in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He can dance with objects, with himself, and most impressively, with a self-aware stylishness that suggests a genuine sense of humor and grace. His John Smith doesn’t have a specific reason to dance (he’s a jet-setting assassin, possessed of major weapons), but he does have an impulse. And that’s enough.
More evocative of Fred Astaire than James Bond, John’s killer athleticism reflects a general quickness of mind and suggests that the more regular aspects of this movie — the action and explosions, the car chase and the shooting only removes him from his rather regular professional killer status. John’s occasional lapse into scampering, complaining, stuttering boy makes him seem about as enchanting as can be.
That’s not to say that the rest of his movie is entirely triumphant. The sparring husband-wife business is overly familiar, and Jolie’s contribution is limited to what you’d expect; she stretches out her fabulous legs, narrows her gorgeous eyes, purses her notorious lips. Slightly more complicatedly, Jane and John are living out what might be termed a doubled version of The Bourne Identity, Doug Liman’s previous brush with action flickiness. Where Jason Bourne was piecing together a past lost by way of major government-agency mind-messing, the couple acts out a more mundane but more resonant fantasy of fractured selves. It’s not so much that they have lost themselves, but that they never had much between them to begin: as flashbacks show, they meet in a tropical hotel as covert killers, they dance some tango, and never tell one another who they are. Over five or six years of marriage, they become such workaholics that they grow estranged, but don’t much worry about it, until they are assigned to kill one another.
This premise leads to frequently smart use of multi-generic conventions. Finding the thematic similarities between romantic comedies and action pictures — delight in chaos, desire for order — Mr. & Mrs. Smith proceeds to smash these genres together repeatedly, so that both are deconstructed, reassembled, and really, more interesting for the wear and tear. Similarly damaged and anxious, they pretend to be happily married (she buys dreadful draperies, he doesn’t notice she’s added peas to the dinner menu) even as they live separate lives (they leave for work in separate vehicles, they keep secret arsenals). They spend romantic-comedy time complaining to their friends, they spend action-movie time immersing themselves in their work.
In their clandestine lives, both are frankly sensational. Jane dons a dominatrix disguise in order to take out her target, up close (“Have you been selling big guns to bad people?” she asks, standing over doggy-boy just before she snaps his thick neck). John goes the scruffier (more Brad Pitty) route, posing as a rowdy drunk of a card player to get similarly near to his assignment, pushing back from the table just in time to take out a passel of grizzly but suddenly off-guard players; he does it efficiently and spectacularly, with loud fast guns.
The movie opens on the couple’s vague effort to acknowledge the problem, namely, a visit with a counselor (off-screen voiced by William Fichtner), a device less cute than it thinks it is (watch them lean away from one another and fidget, as if answering to Bob Eubanks by way of Dr. Phil). As they’re each assigned the same job (to assassinate nebbishy Adam Brody) and essentially live parallel lives: she works with Angela Basset, he with Keith David; her best friend is Kerry Washington, his is Vince Vaughn (who offers his usual mush-mouthed pithiness, as in, “You’re Macys and Gimbels, you would be whatever channel against the We channel”).
Such tired accoutrements aside, the movie turns almost compelling when it reconsiders the consumer-culture markers of identity. Though John and Jane distrust one another, they are, of course, meant to be together (to this point, the film relies on the gossamer appeals of its stars, as well as all that business about Brad and Jennifer in tabloid headlines, Brad and Maddox on the beach, and oh yes, Brad and Diane Sawyer in Africa). Their mutual animosity, however, is only for show — they love each other, really they do.
As the trailers reveal, Jane and John learn of their mutual deceit and begin a little war against one another (the film owes more than basic plot outline to War of the Roses), outfitted with shells, and knives, and automatic weapons, augmented by simultaneous contracts to hit one another. They’re just as glad to do it too, feeling righteous and not a little irritated that they’ve been so duped. Their less than earnest scheming to get even leads to one nice and rather lengthy bit in the house, where each has access to all manner of hidden artillery and they trade battering-married-couple japes (“Are you still alive, honey?”) while checking around corners with mirrors and aiming shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.
But as this swift descent into violence suggests, the film only uses its stars’ prettiness to get you to the starting point. It’s more interested in exploring — granted, mostly in action scenes — damaged, tentative selves, not lit-up, aggressively asserted celebrity selves. In this context, John’s finely timed and frankly delicate teacup-juggling (so it doesn’t smash and give away his position), or better, his dance with an imminently clattering machine in a department (to avoid similar revelation) are unexpected amusements. Deft and Buster Keatonish, these bits of sweet physical comedy suggest that inside this movie lies another one, with a peculiarly buoyant sense of art-making along with all the convention-cracking.