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Mr. and Mrs. Smith


And so here we have Mr. and Mrs. Smith - young, married and bored. Every day, Mr. and Mrs. Smith rise from their cold bed, drink their hot coffee, drive off in their gleaming imports. Their overlarge house is impeccably appointed, and their lawn as carefully manicured as a bowling green. But we know the joke: Mr. and Mrs. Smith are professional assassins (we've seen the slyly funny ads), and because they are played by beautiful movie stars who heat up the gossip rags like hydrogen bombs, we also know this film can't be about anything as dreary as happily ever after. To have and to chokehold - that's the multiplex ticket.

Of course, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are, as anyone with a pulse must be aware, played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, beautiful movie stars who can also be exceptionally fine actors. Fine acting is generally not part of the equation when it comes to deterministically high-concept vehicles like "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," which wring profits and thrills from that classic American mix of sexual titillation and hard-core violence. What counts in a movie like this are stars so dazzling that we won't really notice or at least mind the cut-rate writing and occasionally incoherent action. Sometimes Mr. Pitt and Ms. Jolie succeed in their mutual role as sucker bait, sometimes they don't, which is why their new joint venture is alternately a goof and a drag.

The film was directed by Doug Liman, whose earlier credits include the tasty pop treat "Go" and the equally excellent action adventure "The Bourne Identity." Mr. Liman, who made a splash with "Swingers," an indie trifle about guys on the town and on the make, is a pop savant with a core of seriousness. "Go" and "The Bourne Identity" both look and sound cool and move to the quicksilver rhythms of Gen A.D.D. With their flicker editing, narrative drive and revved-up soundtracks, these are movies made for plugged-in, hard-wired audiences for whom multitasking isn't a modern complaint but an objective fact. In other words, anyone weaned on MTV, Michael Bay, the Internet, PlayStation and commercial music and doesn't see what the big deal is.

The lightness of Mr. Liman's touch in both "Go" and "The Bourne Identity," his ability to fluidly move through frenetic action and the periodic moment of downtime, makes these films very easy to watch. But what makes each film more than just another disposable entertainment is its underlying gravitas, something that at times resembles sincerity. Even the casting of both the spooky Canadian actress Sarah Polley, the hub of the multistoried "Go," and Matt Damon, the unsmiling star of "Bourne," gives each of these films more gravity than they may have had otherwise. It's funny when the amnesiac Bourne realizes he speaks German and can throw a mean punch; it's unexpectedly affecting when the woman he's with vomits after she sees another man violently die.

Neither that buoyancy nor that weight are in evidence in Mr. Liman's latest effort, a genre hybrid that combines comedy and action to awkward effect. The undernourished screenplay was Simon Kinberg's thesis project at Columbia University, where it's possible he came across Stanley Cavell's book "Pursuits of Happiness," about a cinematic subgenre the Harvard professor calls "the comedy of remarriage." Such 1930's and early 1940's comedies as "The Awful Truth" and "The Philadelphia Story," Mr. Cavell writes, ask the question, "What does a happy marriage sound like?" In these films, filled with cascades of bright chatter, the war of the sexes is waged with words. In "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," that war is fought with all manner of weaponry, mostly guns, and few memorable words.

The film opens with the two stars sitting side by side in separate chairs and facing the camera. It soon becomes apparent that Mr. and Mrs. Smith are enduring some kind of therapy session, since they are fielding personal questions from an off-camera man with the soothing voice (William Fichtner) you hear selling antidepressants on television. Fidgety and visibly uncomfortable, the pair swat away questions with boilerplate responses, coming to an abrupt halt when the topic shifts to coitus. There's a familiar he-said, she-said dynamic at play in this exchange: he forgets how many years they have been together and she corrects him with a tight smile. The whole thing is pretty flabby, but it does establish that Mrs. Smith (and perhaps Ms. Jolie) does not suffer much of anything lightly.

After a chaotic trip down memory lane, when John met Jane amid a hailstorm of bullets in Bogotá, Colombia, Mr. and Mrs. Smith discover their mutual subterfuge and quickly experience the agonies of betrayal. The difference being that, instead of throwing a plate against the wall or lobbing an ashtray at their beloved, they lock and load. That's pretty much the entire film, or what passes for its story. Each partner works for a clandestine agency - though her power suite looks like the editorial beehive at a high-end fashion magazine, while his is more mom-and-pop junky. One of the film's slow-to-boil jokes is that Mrs. Smith may be a lot better at her job than her husband, a gag that isn't hard to buy, given Ms. Jolie's thousand-mile stare.

Stuff happens - mostly the couple try to kill each other and, in time, swarms of heavily armed guys in black try to kill them. Vince Vaughn does a straining, unfunny riff on his "Swingers" persona, but it's not money, baby, it's tired and flat. There is no one else really worth mentioning because, in truth, this is the Brad and Angelina show and not much more. That's too bad, because both actors are capable of more. At times a reluctant movie star, Mr. Pitt does not always share the screen easily, but in "Ocean's Eleven" he settled into a smooth groove with George Clooney, perhaps because he didn't have to carry the burden of beauty alone. That movie showed he could pair up nicely; all he needed was his own Rosalind Russell.

What he gets here is Gloria Grahame, Susan Hayward and Ann Savage (the two-bit temptress from the noir "Detour") rolled into one intimidating package. Ms. Jolie's singular beauty and preternatural intensity have failed to give her many worthy roles, but whenever she is onscreen you can't take your eyes off her. Her beauty makes her as pleasurable viewing as Mr. Pitt, but her intensity also means that she upends this film's delicate balance of hard action and soft romance. In the comedy of remarriage, men and women struggle to become equals; these are movies in which the war of the sexes more or less ends in a tie. All it takes is five minutes with Ms. Jolie to realize that Mrs. Smith could wipe the floor with Mr. Smith and probably burns for nothing more.

"Mr. and Mrs. Smith" is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It features a great deal of intense if relatively bloodless gun violence and the occasional thrown knife.
Date Added: 05/03/2013 by Russian
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