Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Til Death Do They Part

Several months ago, the tabloids and talk shows were completely pre-occupied with the break up of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston.  Speculation ran wild about a possible romance between Brad and the equally celebrated co-star of his new film, Angelina Jolie.  Now that their film, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, has opened in theaters across the country Angelina and Brad are all over the tabloids again, and the speculation continues: are they in love or just friends?  We could ask the same question about the characters in the movie, but we’d have to change it somewhat: are they in love or just enemies?  In this romantic comedy/action movie hybrid, love and hate are nearly synonymous, and murder becomes a metaphor for marriage.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith begins in the office of a marriage counselor whom we never see.   Instead, we see John Smith (Brad Pitt) and his wife Jane (Angelina Jolie) seated beside each other, but looking very distant.  We learn that they met in Bogota, married after a tempestuous courtship, and now have problems communicating.  It seems they have little “secrets” they keep from one another.  As everyone in the audience knows, they are both paid assassins, but more importantly, they both hide the fact that they are unhappy with their affluent and tranquil suburban lifestyle.  This is part of what makes Mr. and Mrs. Smith work as a movie.  There’s no attempt to explain or rationalize the couple’s unusual careers.  Instead, the action is subservient to the problems in the relationship.

The real problems start when their respective agencies decide it’s too risky having two married assassins trying to hide their identities from each other.   They become each other’s targets, and at first respond with the professionalism that has become second nature to them by now.   Inevitably feelings intervene though, and the couple must decide whether they want to keep their marriage, and their partner, alive.

Some people will love this film and others will hate it.  Those in the first category are likely to see the humor as dominant. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a very funny movie, with plenty of sight gags and witty one-liners. Director Doug Liman (who also directed The Bourne Identity) manages to add laughs to an elaborate car chase by tempering the action with confessions that start to put the marriage back on the right track even as the couple’s car is speeding down the wrong side of a highway.   Scriptwriter Simon Kinberg makes ample usage of clever double entendres as when John returns home from having failed to kill Jane the first time saying, “I missed you” with just the right mix of irony and sincerity.  In another instance, we don’t know whether they are talking about lovers or victims when John confesses that he’s had somewhere in the “high 50s, low ‘60s.”  Jane comes back with an exact figure of 312.  Occasionally, she had to do two at a time.

Those who hate the film are likely to see the violence as overwhelming.   While there is nothing here that would shock a Quentin Tarantino or John Woo fan, there is plenty to disturb in, what has to be, cinema’s worst case of domestic violence.  Not everyone will be able to laugh at a husband and wife kicking, punching, shooting and stabbing each other as a prelude to their lovemaking.   Violence to this marriage is as indispensable as a condiment to a meal.  It escalates to the point of absurdity as they find the unlikely solution to their marital problems: simply direct the violence outward.  They turn on their respective agencies, and in a hail of bullets, live happily ever after. 

It’s hard to say how much real-life marital problems and romance will contribute to the popularity of Mr. and Mrs. Smith.  Certainly there is plenty of onscreen magic between Brad and Angelina, and that’s ultimately what a film like this needs most.  The rumors haven’t hurt the movie, though, and they form a curious backdrop to what is, after all, a film about marital break-up and reconciliation.  Interestingly, the role of Mrs. Smith was initially offered to Nicole Kidman, but she had to drop out early on.  Perhaps she was too busy ending her own marriage to Tom Cruise at the time.

This article was originally published in my CineMatters column for The Baltimore View, July 2005. Joseph Christopher Schaub