You want this movie to be a lot more fun than it actually is. Seriously, how much brainpower did it take to unite Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (which opens Friday, June 10, at the Meridian and other theaters)? They're two rival assassins who unwittingly marry each other. They're two rival jewel thieves who unwittingly marry each other. They're two rival cops who unwittingly marry each other. They're two rival bus drivers who unwittingly marry each other. Does it really matter how we parse that sentence?
The glamorous grammar begins just fine: Pitt and Jolie at the marriage counselor's office, speaking directly to the camera about how their bond has grown stale over five years. Or six. (Pitt can't remember which, immediately and winningly establishing that he's the dumber of the pair.) So you've got two movie stars sitting in chairs in a drab setting, confessing that they don't have sex anymore. If director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Swingers) had done nothing else with his movie but follow these therapy sessions, his steadicam occasionally moving in and out, Smith would've been pretty funny and worthwhile. The subtext isn't really Brad and Jennifer, but rather the discontent that we multiplex schlubs can feel in our own marriages. We fail for the same reasons they fail—lack of communication, etc.—except for the part about being rival professional assassins.
The next thing Liman gets right is to hold the bullets for a while. We see how Pitt and Jolie met (business trips and self-preservation put them on the same dance floor in Bogotá), then it's off to the posh suburbs outside New York City, where the newlyweds essentially inhabit the domestic milieu of The Dick Van Dyke Show. (Hmm . . . why hasn't there been a movie remake of that?) There's something inherently funny about movie stars—assassins, whatever—living like normal squares in suburbia: Pitt getting the morning paper in his slippers; Jolie cooking up inedible masterpieces that he manfully chews without complaining. They're conspicuously childless and beautiful, of course, which makes them all the more desperate to fit in.
Better still, each has to fool the other. As we know from his smaller parts in Snatch and True Romance, Pitt is something of a clown in a matinee idol's body. He's always at his worst in serious or historical settings (Meet Joe Black, Troy), and Steven Soderbergh has probably made best recent use of his cutup's personality in the Ocean's Eleven movies. Here, he plays his character as both too cocky and too dim—the super badass killer who thinks his wife could never, ever guess what he does outside the home. In reality, of course, he's just like any other guy who thinks he can outsmart the missus. In other words, stupid.
The poor fellow doesn't realize he's married to Lara Croft, tomb raider. Jolie handles pistols better than she does light comedy, but the movie uses her well simply by putting her in an apron. Jumping down elevator shafts is easy for this woman; being Martha Stewart is hard. Jolie's generally been grating when she tries comedy (try to sit through Life or Something Like It; she even makes Ed Burns look funny). What Liman does as a director to help her is make her acting struggle a part of the Mrs. Smith act: The challenge of being the perfect wife and career woman, from casseroles to drapes, makes her brittle and almost vulnerable. Other women do Pilates to relax; she whacks mob informants.
Inevitably, however, Smith has to leave suburbia to show its deadly duo in action, and that's where it shoots itself in the foot. We've got to see their killing prowess in the field (never mind that it's funnier in the living room, tripping over the ottoman). Liman has to reveal both Pitt's and Jolie's secret operations, rife with Batman and James Bond gadgets; to introduce their lieutenants (Vince Vaughn for him, Kerry Washington for her); to convince us of something it's better to imagine, not to show, during their domestic dance of death. In other words, Liman gets all John Woo with the material— flying glass, slo-mo gunfire ballets, two-fisted pistol work—when that kind of stuff is better without the distraction of romance and big stars. (Not to mention, I'd rather see John Woo do a John Woo movie.) It's not particularly violent, but it's entirely excessive. The climactic shoot-out takes place in a big-box retail store, which may be some kind of inside joke about the script: We don't know how to end this thing, so let's supersize the sucker! And the biggest casualty is humor.
Also PG-13 is the sex, a much greater disappointment than the violence. You make a movie with two of the world's most attractive people so you can not show off their bodies? That's harder to accept than Pitt and Jolie in the suburbs. It's a given that, when their identities are blown and they start trying to kill each other, the gunplay-as-foreplay will reinvigorate their marriage. Fine, but Liman takes too long to get there, and he breezes past the "Gee, honey, this casserole tastes . . . different" moments in a rush to get to the armory. In a movie that was considerably delayed, reshot, and recut (leaving a very funny Vaughn almost completely stranded), the domestic violence—and I mean that in a good sense—unfortunately gives way to swirling helicopters, endless computer-screen displays, rappelling SWAT teams, and car chases on the Jersey Turnpike. The plot twists about Pitt's and Jolie's rival assassination agencies make no sense. What's more inexplicable is how, amid all the gunfire, Liman doesn't sufficiently trust the caliber of his stars to simply leave them home alone.