Mr and Mrs Smith

(Doug Liman, USA, 2005)


There is a clever idea at the centre of this slick, noisy, sometimes smarmy action-comedy.

It begins in counselling: John Smith (Brad Pitt) and his wife Jane (Angelina Jolie) have been together for six years, and their very ordinary relationship is showing signs of deterioration. Jane addresses the therapist, "There's, like, a space between us that gets filled up with everything we don't say – what's that called?", to which this unseen expert replies: "Marriage."

What John and Jane have never admitted to each other is that they are both professional assassins, working for rival organisations. Events set them gunning for each other. And when they mutually twig to what is happening, they both bitterly assume that the marriage has simply been a cover, never a sincere union.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that, from this point, Mr and Mrs Smith tries to twist itself into a sweet romantic comedy – specifically, what genre experts call a comedy of remarriage, in which two people work through the lies and illusions that have derailed their partnership, and find a way to affirm their love.

Director Doug Liman (Go, 1999) and writer Simon Kinberg clearly know the classic romantic comedies well. In Pitt and Jolie they have a sassy, smouldering duo that occasionally inspires memories of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. But the tone here, while remaining surprisingly discreet on the sexual plane, is much more brittle than in the good old days, not to mention more violent.

The film, however, manages to make a virtue of this uncomfortable mismatch between the romantic comedies of yesterday and today. For about two thirds of its running time, Mr and Mrs Smith is not about love at all. Like Danny DeVito's The War of the Roses (1989), it is about hate. And it is especially about the gleeful destruction of everything that constitutes middle-class, marital life: the cars, the curtains, the house. It's just as well John and Jane have no kids, or they too would probably be sacrificed in the general conflagration.

There are uncanny moments where one could swear it is turning into The Amityville Horror (2005) or an Abel Ferrara psychodrama – and, indeed, Ferrara's great cinematographer Bojan Bazelli is responsible for the often strikingly dramatic imagery. Like several Ferrara movies, Mr and Mrs Smith begins with the evidence of banal, everyday discontent and then unfolds that misery anamorphically, via an extravagant plot premise, into a wholesale condemnation of the American way of life.

But did Pitt and Jolie really mean to sign on for such a subversive endeavour? Presumably not. So the film then tries to rescue itself for the feel-good market by contorting its premise around to something more comfortable and recuperative. Originality is lost in the process, and the film's humour becomes more facile as it proceeds.

But, as a well-crafted entertainment, Mr and Mrs Smith is never less than engaging – and there are enough intriguing ideas buried along the way to give it the aura of a pop culture event worth discussing.

MORE Liman: Swingers

© Adrian Martin June 2005

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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