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Fairy tales
Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d’enfants, and the films of Bruno Ganz

A time comes in every relationship when one or both partners looks at the other and wonders who the hell that stranger is. In films, that moment usually occurs when they’re trying to kill each other. It’s also the moment when their love is most alive. True, a long happy marriage and few surprises might be what people dream of, but that’s not what they go to the movies to see. They go to the movies to see the façade of their lives shattered and then restored and vindicated. It’s no easy task, but it’s what the movies, especially Hollywood movies, were invented to do.

So we get dream couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the kind of American married couple you’d likely see in a Lexus ad. In flashback, they meet cute as seeming tourists menaced by the police in Colombia, their passions fired by the aphrodisiac of political violence and assumed identities. But six years later, the ardor has cooled. They stare miserably into the camera, answering the off-screen questions of a counselor. "How often do you have sex?" "I don’t understand the question," says Mrs. Smith. Apparently the accouterments of their ideal life, the house, the cars, the appliances, the glassware and the ugly drapes, have taken the place of what they thought was their love.

And the place of their identities. Unlike Hitchcock’s 1941 film of the same title in which the marriage bond proves fictitious, here it’s the husband and wife. Neither knows that the other is an undercover assassin for hire, or that they’re gunning for each other. Does the lie of marriage and the good life of conspicuous consumption conceal an abyss of domestic rage and violence? Or does the rage and violence sustain the illusion of content and normal? Either way, after a couple of cute independent assignments (he pretends to be a bumpkin, she a dominatrix) and a few unproductive visits to the shrink, their fiction of bourgeois bliss collapses into a death match.

The bad news is that this potential allegory devolves into a one-joke movie. Director Doug Liman, who showed a flair for combining action, drama, and metaphor in The Bourne Identity, can’t find the note of irony that worked for Prizzi’s Honor and The War of the Roses, so he settles for the high-tech gimmickry of True Lies. Jolie and Pitt do handle the breakdown and the resultant catastrophe with insouciance and fatalism, not to mention the double-entendre quips. (My favorite: "I missed you.") And the climactic battles that level their house and, more tellingly, a Home Depot–like department store offer moments of genuine lust, tenderness, and pity. But you can’t gauge their chemistry from interactions that involve guided missiles or computer screens. Which begs the question: are Pitt and Jolie more convincing on screen when they pretend to be bored with each other or off screen when they pretend not to be a couple?

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Issue Date: June 10 - 16, 2005
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