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An Affair to Dismember

'Til death do us part: Freakishly hot sex symbols smolder while film takes tepid late turn

Just in time for wedding season, the beleaguered institution of matrimony takes a few more hits. A pair of two-handers this week file bruising dispatches from the conjugal front lines that should have defense-of-marriage conservatives weeping into their white-rose corsages. The feuding couples in Mr. & Mrs. Smith and 5x2 are half a decade into unions that have turned stagnant and sour. Both movies are about how love dies, borrowing respectively from The War of the Roses and Scenes From a Marriage, but where the Hollywood blockbuster strives to spice things up with some therapeutic, s/m-tinged role-play, the European art film pronounces its exhausted relationship dead at the start and splits open the still warm corpse for an unflinching autopsy.

The failed marriage that is the true subject of Mr. & Mrs. Smith is, of course, not the one on-screen (between two assassins played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie). Extratextual white noise drowns out everything else here—which is to say, most viewers will be studying this film for clues to, as a recent Us Weekly headline put it, "how Angelina stole Brad." (The movie supports some of the magazine's extensively researched theories, in particular "She's Flirtatious!" and "She's Fun!" but is inconclusive on others, like "She Lives in the Now!") Beleaguered by last-minute personnel changes and costly reshoots, Doug Liman's romantic caper has benefited from increasingly breathless free publicity since the Pitt-Aniston split, and seems to have been shaped accordingly. Overlong at nearly two hours, the movie alternates between busy action high jinks and what passes for repose: ogling its stars, a default mode that's hard to argue with given the freakish hotness of the tabloid wet dream that is the Brangelina.

Unrelated to the Hitchcock comedy of the same name, Mr. & Mrs. Smith coasts on a gimmicky premise that Hollywood's new favorite scenarist Simon Kinberg (XXX: State of the Union) concocted for his Columbia master's thesis. After a stressful meet-cute in Bogotá John and Jane take the plunge but continue to lead furtive separate lives: Ensconced in opulent, picket fence suburbia, each remains improbably oblivious to the fact that the other kills for a living. His is a low-rent outer-borough business (run by a schlubby, richly hammy Vince Vaughn), hers a Manhattan-based Kill Billmeets–Charlie's Angels all-girl operation. When both are assigned to (and botch) the same job—just as their marital woes are worsening—their cover is blown and they're instructed to dispose of each other.

Barbarism begins at home: The Smiths
photo: Stephen Vaughn/SMPSP
Barbarism begins at home: The Smiths

The tail-chasing symmetry of the scenario recalls the yin-yang stalemates of Face/Off and Infernal Affairs, and Liman, generally an agile, inventive director, opts for a pleasing, Hong Kong–style insouciance. The shoot-outs have a John Woo–worthy panache, all slo-mo exaggeration and two-fisted bullet sprays. (Woo was in fact briefly attached to the project before Liman.) A tongue-in-cheek allegory on the hazards of harboring secrets in a relationship, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is most entertaining when the Smiths are hell-bent on mutual annihilation—going from covert plotting to naked hostility. The prospect of a hot hate fuck looms tantalizingly, but Liman defuses the sexual simmer much too early with a PG-13 reconciliation, leaving Jolie and Pitt little to do but preen and cutely bicker. There's something of an anti-bourgeois streak beneath the gleaming surfaces, as suggested by the gleeful destruction of the Smiths' showroom-ready stainless-steel kitchen (not to mention the winking presence of a Fight Club T-shirt). But a braver movie would have seen the couple's standoff through to its logical conclusion—the eventual insistence on happily ever after seems more than a little weaselly, given the off-camera divorce that has served as Mr. & Mrs. Smith's most effective coming attraction.

 
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