Sunday, August 07, 2005

#26: On MR. & MRS. SMITH 6/16/2005 “A bored married couple is surprised to learn that both are assassins hired to kill each other,” reads the POST STANDARD’s blurb for MR & MRS SMITH, rated at three stars & listed as a comedy. It’s been called stylish & witty eye candy, a sophisticated romp, & a parable of modern marriage. But Angelina Jolie & Brad Pitt’s star vehicle owes less to Tracy & Hepburn – or the recent WAR OF THE ROSES - than it does to Butch & Sundance. And its comedic sparkle covers a sobering degree of violence that gives new meaning to “kick her when she’s down.” The comedy in MR & MRS SMITH both frames & contains the violence in this tale of professional killers provoked by rival agencies into turning on each other – a story book-ended by marriage counseling sessions in which Jane & John are unforthcoming. Timing in comedy is a little like sharps & flats in music, riling up our emotions & heightening our attention. The understated exchanges, measured pauses & spare expressions – a tight smile here, a sidelong glance there – soon do their work. These scenes are focused, funny & well-directed. Between this before & after therapy, the story’s action unfolds & the bickering competition accelerates. They tussle over who’s calling the shots, who’s in the drivers seat – well, list a string of such stock phrases about fighting for control & you’ll pretty much have the script. Their secret out, John & Jane get to know each other better during a wild car chase. Past the requisite questions about infidelity, they advance to guilt. Jane asks if John ever has trouble sleeping “afterward,” that is, after killing people. Never, he says. After just a breath, she says never too. But I wondered about that, if banishing guilt is another skill one acquires after practice, like sharp shooting or mountain-climbing. Violence? Well, there’s much noise & mayhem, many explosions - some of it played for laughs, deceiving us that there’s not much real pain here. When the Smiths are first blasting holes in the walls while aiming for each other, Jane calls out sweetly during a lull, “Are you okay, honey?” They might be playing paint-ball. Such ease in destroying things gives the spectacle of their collapsing mansion an emotional distance akin to video games or smart bombs. But suddenly hand to hand combat is underway, at the same speed & volume. In this runaway scene, before you know it, John kicks Jane with all his might while she’s down – three times. Inscrutably, several reviewers call this stomach-turning moment one of the film’s best “guilty pleasures.” Critic Manohla Dargis has said, “At the heart of horror is the spectacle of pain, & the pleasure we take in that spectacle is often more unsettling than anything in the actual movie.” Any one of these kicks would’ve broken Jane’s ribs, not seen her popping up for the hottest make-up sex on-screen in a long time. I remain ungrateful for both the scene & the message, because I know this is a date movie. Comedy muffles our response to violence, & so can evoking past familiar movies. In this case it’s really the buddy action flick, with a final shoot-out straight out of BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID. Our modern outlaws emerge from a domesticated garden shed instead of a Wild West-era Mexican stable. But we know how it ended for Butch & Sundance. Primed as we are for their final comeuppance after all those get-aways, the Smiths surprise. In a near-perfectly choreographed, slow motion scene, they whirl, fire & prevail. In one suspended & iconic moment, they simultaneously embrace & fire behind each other. I wonder if anchoring the climatic scene in male-bonding flicks suggests some confusion about expanded gender roles - & resentment too. Did Jane have those kicks coming? Otherwise why the pointless garden party scene that dwells on her awkwardness & dislike in holding a new baby. What is feminine anyway? In one scene skilled mountain-climber Jane effortlessly adjusts living room drapes while balancing in stiletto heels on the thin wooden arms of a rocking chair – director Gerard Moses used a similar visual in The Redhouse’s recent production of the play PROOF to establish another self-possessed woman. But I started feeling that such moments just cleverly echoed her double life & added some trapping of PC, because really the film snipes at Jane too often to respect her much, despite her fierceness, her athleticism, her all-girl crew of top-flight operatives & my own suspicion she could whip Brad’s buns. Seen on the job as assassin, Jane’s disguised as a dominatrix, & the next scene reduces her tell-tale fishnet stockings to looking ridiculous. The Smiths never do learn their lesson. Back in marriage counseling at the end, they’re still leaving stuff out. With a gesture he hides from Jane, John brags that there’s lots of great sex now. Then Jane adds, “Oh, & we did the house over.” This deft understatement does lots of work after the smoking ruins of their home. The idea that she’s happy now, domesticated & deeper undercover, is less convincing. It makes you long for Tony Soprano’s shrink. (863)