Thursday, June 16, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Despite all the press coverage of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, I didn’t find myself real driven to see this movie. My friend Jason, however, convinced me that any film by Doug Liman, the director of Swingers, Go, and The Bourne Identity, deserved my most prompt attention. So now I can say that I contributed to the film’s number one ranking during its opening weekend. Yipee for me for helping the movie make $51 million.

Does it deserve $51 million? Sure—as a summer movie. The film is entertaining, offers two incredibly hot stars, and plenty of action to keep you engaged. What is the movie about? Tougher question.

First the strengths. Obviously there is the aforementioned hotness of the stars—and yes, folks, they do have chemistry. The movie also offers some funny one-liners, especially during the scenes when Jane and John Smith finally start to tell each other the truth about their lives and careers. As for the action, Liman provides explosions, jumps from buildings, and a whole lot of style without resorting to excessive tricky camerawork.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith tells the story of married couple Jane and John Smith. Though working as super-spy-killers by day, they play a normal couple at night, hiding their secret lives even from each other. Liman’s vision of their married life employs some of the more mundane aspects of clichéd suburban married life to show how disconnected our heroes are. Jane constantly wears an apron when at home, cooking food that John lies about enjoying. John makes himself a martini each night and humors Jane’s decorating style.

Jane’s character grows more noticeably throughout the film, for it is her reticence to accept John that drives the action. John is the first to admit his need of his wife, describing his feelings upon first meeting her, “you looked like Christmas morning.” Jane’s harsh reply that he was a beautiful mark illustrates her refusal to show her vulnerability.

John demonstrates vulnerability constantly, whether in his clumsiness or his openness about his feelings. He repeatedly fails to kill Jane when he has the chance: once after crashing into her business headquarters and again when the couple stand with guns pointed at each other after a monster fight. Jane and her partners are less generous, trying to kill John by crashing the elevator in which they suspect he stands. Despite repeated attacks by Jane, John continues to put himself on the line for her.

Jane, however, plays tough for virtually all of the film. A less sophisticated reading would praise this film for its brave gender reversal: the sensitive man coupled with the macho woman. But let me tell you, giving a girl a gun doesn’t make her strong. Why is Jane so reticent about her emotion? Does she not trust John, and if so, why? Rather than deepen her character with any sort of psychological reading or (gasp) dialogue that allows us to enter into Jane’s heart or mind, the film gives her a veneer of attitude without any substance.

Jane’s eventual admittance that she would choose to be with John over all other places she could be on earth, quickly followed by a brush off comment to deflect the emotion of the moment, climaxes the film. Once they admit their need for each other, they are able to defeat a dozen nameless foes, functioning almost with one body. In one particularly metaphoric moment, Jane bends over and John uses the gun strapped to her back to take down a few bad guys.

If one assumes that the central question of the film is “will these two crazy kids work things out?” then Jane’s admittance that she wants to be with her husband answers the question. The movie is, in essence, over. The killing scene therefore seems anticlimactic—it doesn’t help them understand each other better, it doesn’t forward the action, and it seems rather redundant.

Ebert and Roeper despaired that Mr. and Mrs. Smith does not truly embrace its dark heart, and I know the exact moment to which they referred. Jane and John take out a dozen bad guys to whom we have no connection whatsoever: they are nameless, faceless entities dressed in black, like ants stepped on at a picnic. What would have happened if Jane and John in fact had to kill each other, or if they died for each other? This sort of ending would have taken guts, something this movie lacks from start to finish. Style stands in for substance.

Screenwriter Simon Kinberg apparently wrote this script for his master’s thesis at Columbia. I wonder how many changes were made from the project he submitted for graduation to the final script we see on screen. I have described this film to friends as having no script, but what I mean is that it has no meat. Kinberg sets up the potential for great conflict on a number of levels, but the film only touches up on each and drops entire story arcs.

Who do Jane and John work for? I could insert a spoiler alert here, but that would indicate that the film offers any surprises, which it doesn’t. Why do their bosses decide to set them up to kill each other rather than just take them out? Is it likely that their mysterious bosses would team up this way? Who is the black man whose face we sort of see during two moments in the film? And why exactly do they kill people for a living?

More importantly, once Jane and John kill a bunch of nameless, faceless bad guys, are their lives still in danger? Don’t they know too much to be allowed to live (and together, at that)? How are they able to return to their home when we can only assume they must be running for their lives? Do they form their own super spy company?

As usual, I’m thinking too much. I’m aware that this is a summer action movie—it is my mistake if I want to impose too much questioning on a structure with a faulty base. But in essence that is what this movie is: a house of cards built on an unstable surface. Poke at the ground too much and the whole structure falls apart.

Consider the fight/love scene shortly after Jane and John discover that the other is a killer, too. Unsure of how to interact now that the other knows his/her secret, Jane and John try to kill each other. The fight is intense, tearing apart their lovely Connecticut home. At one point, Pitt’s character kicks Jolie’s repeatedly in the stomach (or so we assume—the camera does not show us Jolie, obscuring her behind the couch). She then kicks him in the groin and stands up—guess what? No blood oozes from her mouth as an indication of internal bleeding, and she exhibits no obvious signs of pain. I guess John must kick like a girl.

The film is conscious of gender, using it to exploit Jolie’s incredibly beauty to its fullest and to provide humor (Jane at one point asks John why he gets the big gun). But it provides little insight into the true challenges sparked by gender difference. Jane is lovely, but she is as tough as John, even more so. She has killed more people than he has. And as she admits, she certainly doesn’t cook.

In some ways, she has merely adopted so-called “masculine” characteristics while maintaining her sensuality. Is she a strong woman or a woman acting like a man? Is it fair for me to draw this gender binary? Perhaps not, but the film certainly embraces the binary in its use of gender reversal. To what end, though? We learn so little about who these people actually are that their sexuality matters purely for coitus. This movie tells the story of a sexual awakening between two people, but little more.

During the scene in which Jane and John hold each other at gun point, John, as always, is the first to blink. He drops his gun, much to the dismay of Jane, who orders him not to give in. In fact, this moment struck me most because Jolie acted rather than merely posed. She evidenced an actual emotion, and I bought it.

Unfortunately, this moment of honesty is an anomaly. Mr. and Mrs. Smith lacks sincerity and heart. The sex scene that follows, though hot, is brief, indicating that the couple expresses themselves more fully in their fighting than in their lovemaking. In fact, the sex merely caps off the fight, like the cherry on a sundae. They couple for a few quick shots, and then the camera cuts to the post-coital bliss. Honestly, I felt a bit cheated. After all that buildup, I expected a more satisfying finish.

That makes a nice statement about the film in general—it offers a lot of buildup with an unsatisfying resolution. The script offers the potential for an engaging story but Liman opts for a general gloss instead. But his actors sure are pretty.


At 2:44 PM, Blogger Robert said...

A good alternative ending would have been to have John and Jane, realizing they were both being hunted after talking to Eddie, fake their own deaths, perhaps at each other's hands, then resurface and start dating after the smoke cleared. This would have kept every action sequence from looking exactly alike, resolved the intimacy problems they had as a married couple, and gotten them out of therapy.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Robert said...

A good alternative ending would have been to have John and Jane, realizing they were both being hunted after talking to Eddie, fake their own deaths, perhaps at each other's hands, then resurface and start dating after the smoke cleared. This would have kept every action sequence from looking exactly alike, resolved the intimacy problems they had as a married couple, and gotten them out of therapy.


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