Friday, January 2, 2009


The new Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie romantic thriller comedy "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (**1/2 out of ****) blends bits and pieces from the 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot'em up "True Lies" and the 1989 Michael Douglas & Kathleen Turner domestic black comedy "The War of the Roses" to tell the often amusing but sometimes violent saga about an alienated married couple who try to knock each other off. Director Doug Liman, who helmed "The Bourne Identity," "Swingers," and "Go," doesn't break any new ground with this mindless kiss-kiss/bang-bang potboiler, but he keeps the far-fetched action moving at a moderately fast enough pace that you don't think about the weaknesses in Simon Kinberg's hopelessly outlandish screenplay. Neither the explosive firefight sequences can compare with Liman's earlier spy thriller "The Bourne Identity" nor does the humor rival either of his previous comedies "Swingers" and "Go." Nevertheless, the sexy on-screen chemistry between Pitt and Jolie as well as Vince Vaughn's hilarious scene-stealing antics as a hit-man who lives with his mom make "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" worth watching once, even when everybody isn't trying to blow more holes in each other than a wedge of Swiss cheese. Incidentally, for the record, aside from its title, Liman's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" shares nothing in common with Alfred Hitchcock's one and only screwball comedy "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" (1941) that toplined Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery.

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith" opens with Jane (Angelina Jolie of "Alexander") and John Smith (Brad Pitt of "Troy") seated in separate chairs as they answer a variety of questions from an anonymous, off-screen marriage counselor (voice of William Fichtner of "The Longest Yard) about the length of their wedlock, where they met, and how often they have sex. During their martial therapy sessions, Jane and John break the fourth wall. In other words, they address all their responses to us—the audience--as if we were the therapist. You cannot watch these scenes—all action occurs in flashbacks--without thinking about the infamous, off-screen meltdown of Brad Pitt's own marriage to actress Jennifer Aniston. Unless you've lived in a cave for the last year or kept your eyes shut while standing in the check out lanes at Walmart where the tabloids proclaim that Pitt cheated with Jolie, you know what I'm talking about. Director Doug Liman relies on this clever framing gimmick to tell us that neither Jane nor John is happily married. John claims that they have been married for five years, but Jane contradicts him they have been hitched for six years. We learn that our heroes met in Bogotá, Columbia, where they had carried out respective assassinations, then paired up to throw the local constabulary off the scent. The law is out to round up all singles, so our heroes lie and say they are a couple. What difference should it make whether assassins are single or come in pairs is never explained? Furthermore, we learn that they spend more time apart from each other than with each other. Their time together isn't any rosier. They quarrel about the new curtains that Jane has brought for their luxurious home in suburbia. Jane works for a Wall Street firm, while John runs an engineering business with best buddy, wisecracking Eddie (an unshaven Vince Vaughn of "Swingers"). In reality, Jane and John work for different assassination agencies. She stashes her arsenal of automatic weapons and throwing knives in a compartment inside and beneath the oven, while he hides his hardware underneath the garage. Neither has the faintest clue what the other does, because neither intrudes on each other at their respective workplaces. Eventually, the competing agencies that hire them to make hits accidentally double-book a hit. The target escapes their gun sites, because Jane and John wind up shooting at each other. When our protagonists discover that they have been exchanging shots, they start blasting away at each other in what constitutes the most unusual way to remodel their home.

Absurd as it may seem, scenarist Simon Kinberg penned his exercise in weapons-toting, one-upmanship as part of his thesis for his Masters of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University. Naturally, a squad of uncredited scribes rewrote it for the big-screen, but the problem is that neither Liman nor his writers can make up their minds about what kind of movie that they wanted to make. Some of the action gets pretty brutal for the PG-13 rating, while at other times the gunfights resemble kung fu battles with our outnumbered heroes repulsing literally hundreds of expendable SWAT team clad assassins. If you've seen the trailer for "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," you have already caught a glimpse of the best scenes: the interior redecorating scene between Pitt and Jolie; the desert shoot'em up, and the hell-for-leather chase scene. "Mr.& Mrs. Smith" gets off to a slow start as Liman sets up their martial woes, but he never goes very deep into the action itself. Since we know that neither Jane nor John is going to kill each other, suspense takes a back seat. Moreover, we have no villain at which to vent our rage. The one-liners are witty in a James Bond sense. Jane blows up the elevator that she has John trapped in, and he accused her of giving him the shaft. Repeatedly, other characters ridicule their marriage. During the guidance counseling scenes, John describes their life together as " . . . a huge space filled with everything that we don't say to each other . . ." When John asks the therapist what he would call that, the therapist crisply replies: "marriage." "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" lacks any shred of either sentimentality or narrative depth. Guys should enjoy the over-the-top but unbelievable action scenes, while gals will find Jane's efforts to outsmart John in the kitchen, bedroom, and battlefield comical, too. Without the luminous presence of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" would qualify as just another mediocre matrimonial melodrama.

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