Brad and Angelina

By Sean Carroll | July 19, 2005 1:03 pm

Seriously, why did Mr. and Mrs. Smith get such mixed reviews? You have two of the prettiest people in the world, exchanging witty banter and steamy looks (and a substantial number of gunshots) with each other, moving through a visual feast of elegant settings while the surrounding chaos leaves their makeup and fashionable clothing largely undisturbed. What is not to like about this movie?

You will be unsurprised to hear that I have a theory. Like many works of genius, Mr. and Mrs. Smith is misunderstood. The movie makes no pretensions to depth or profundity; it is a genre film, pure and simple. But it skirts the edges of the conventions of its genre — action comedy — in interesting ways.

“Action comedy” is a somewhat novel and unstable classification to begin with. Classic action films may feature a witty line here and there, but they would never be mistaken for comedies. In the post-Raiders of the Lost Ark era, however, the hybrid has become more common, as witnessed in the success of franchises from Lethal Weapon to Men in Black.

But still, there are rules. Within the conventions of an action film, there are two standard ways of creating comedy: to play the action straight but include a substantial dose of humorous situations and dialogue (Lethal Weapon), or to move toward parody or satire (Men in Black). In the former case, it is taken for granted that the adventure scenarios must be traditionally realistic and thrilling; in the latter, allowance is made for a greater degree of slapstick silliness, and realism is happily tossed aside.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith falls into neither of these modes. No serious attempt is made to paint a realistic scenario — two professional assassins who have been married to each other for years without knowing what their spouse did for a living would be difficult to make believable. Mrs. Smith works in gleaming high-tech surroundings, where all of her co-workers would appear to be very attractive and fashionable young women; Mr. Smith, in contrast, works in sleazy surroundings that call to mind private investigators in the Sam Spade mold. We are never told what these organizations are, who their clients might be, nor how they fit into a larger picture. We are supposed to simply recognize the accepted tropes of the genre, and enjoy the fun that the characters themselves are so obviously having.

But the fun is not slapstick or parodic — it is affectionate. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not a satire, calling our attention to the foibles of the genre or of society; it is a caricature, exaggerating notable features for purposes of amusement. The relevant distinction is between “making fun of” and “having fun with.” The point is neither realism nor social criticism; it extends to having a good time and no further. And the talents deployed towards this end are considerable: Jolie is obviously an extremely talented actress, while Pitt is underappreciated as a brilliant comic actor. The cinematography is colorful and evocative, and the dialogue zips along with very few sluggish patches.

The critics, by and large, don’t get it. David Denby, just to pick an example, complains about the absence of motivation when Jolie “appears at some sort of club in a strapless, shiny, black patent-leather rig, flogs some guy in a back room, and then breaks his neck.” Would more backstory have really enriched that scene? It’s like watching Bugs Bunny and complaining that we aren’t told how rabbits learned to talk.

Admittedly, the film is very much of its time. Although it is not a satire, I imagine that it wouldn’t be as enjoyable for audiences not immersed in a set of expectations about action films, comedies, and movie stars. It’s not The Maltese Falcon, but that’s no reason not to enjoy it on its own terms.

Perhaps next time we will discuss how Johnny Depp looks in lipstick.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts, Entertainment
  • http://sdhurley.blogspot.com/ Sean Hurley

    Let me preface this by saying that I’m not bashing you. Just that I had a v. different take…

    Mr. and Mrs. Smith is… a stupid movie. I’m ashamed I even watched it, even more ashamed that I trusted the friends who told me that it was good… I’ll admit that I didn’t hate it… But I had deep problems with the movie: including the glamorous, 007-style, portrayal of assassin as a profession (sure the benefits rock, but the hours will kill you).

    The soul of this movie is amoral and insubstantial. The movie wasn’t located anywhere. The suburb the couple lived in was outside of Houston. The offices were downtown in NYC. The desert was New Mexico, etc… and aside from a few “friends at the office” the characters weren’t rooted anywhere either.

    Maybe there was a message to this movie… that honesty will cause one’s relationships to flourish. Its a shame that none of that honesty was really shared with the audience.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Why do smart people (e.g. physicists) watch Hollywood films (i.e. mind-numbing consumer products of capitalism), rather than films from such luminaries as Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Bergman, Ozu, Bresson, and Teshigahara (i.e. great challenging works of art)? Einstein played the sonatas of Brahms on his violin, Bohr studied Kierkegaard and developed quite a sophisticated philosophy of “complementarity”, Oppenheimer was a Hindu scholar and read the Bhagavad Gita in its original Sanskrit. The concept of a broad, lifelong and high-quality education seems to have been lost on intelligent people these days. As a physics student, I had a brilliant professor who was a fan of Star Wars, I knew a clever post-doc who slavishly watched daytime soaps, and most of my student friends were fans of sci-fi and fantasy of the trashiest sort. I am still befuddled by it.

    So, intellectually gifted people of the world, let me be your conscience. Leave the trash, dross, and slag of civilisation to dumb dolts like me (who merely fluked his way through two science degrees), and stick to the rare but gleaming jewels of high culture. I beg you not to waste your cerebral gifts on such ridiculous questions as: when are Angelina and Brad finally going to admit they’re an item, why does Johnny Depp fail to look silly no matter what role he plays, and is Spielberg the greatest director ever or what dude!? To start your penance, explore three of the following creations in the next three months: Mann’s “The Magic Mountain”, Bach’s “St Matthew Passion”, Ozu’s “Tokyo Story”, Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. I’ll watch Entertainment Tonight and the Jerry Springer Show to maintain the natural order of things.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Oh yes, *that* will certainly keep us in touch with the general public.

    It’s actually possible for the same person to love a film by Tarkovsky and one by Speilberg. I certainly do. The Brahms violin concerto is one of my favourite pieces of music, but I also really like Macy Gray’s “The Trouble With Being Myself”. Those people you spoke of almost certainly just mentioned *part* of what they spent their spare time doing, ‘cos they thought it looked good. What were they doing when no one was looking?. Maybe Oppie read the odd Superman comic now and again. Maybe Bohr read some “trashy” H.G. Wells Sci-Fi, now so fashionable. And was your brilliant physics professor any less brilliant for liking Star Wars (episodes 4, 5, and 6, I hope you mean) ?

    cheers,

    -cvj

  • Ijon Tichy

    You are probably right and I am hopelessly wrong. That’s part of the reason I come here, to listen to the opinions and ideas of people much smarter than me. I’ll pipe down for a while and just listen.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    It’s not about who’s smarter than whom. That is irrelevant and for all I know you may well be smarter than anyone I’ve ever met. Who knows? I don’t even really know what smart means…. In any case, thanks for contributing and do continue to comment from time to time.

    cheers,

    -cvj

  • Courtney Dimwiddie

    Although it may seem paradoxical or even hypocritical for me to quote one of the stupiest movies in the history of cinema, I would adapt Forrest Gump’s words and say that “pretty is as pretty does” and question how any sensible person can find Brad and Angelina pretty on that basis. In terms of human achievement, Joe Torre is prettier. Even though I hate the damn Yankees, Torre is expert in an entertainment world that has at least a little substance to it. Baseball is at least a test of human performance under pressure. Being a successful Hollywood movie personality is like being born on third base and thinking you hit a triple. And “witty banter”? I hold with a more traditional definition of wit–“True wit is nature to advantage dressed, what oft was thought but ne’er so well-expressed” (Alexander Pope). “Steamy looks”? This has to be either the softest pornography on record or bait for one of the most romantically vulnerable people on the planet. The less said about “gunshots” the better. Those people who are entertained by mindless violence deserve the culture they get. “A visual feast of elegant settings” reminds me of a friend who said, quite seriously, that she enjoyed watching soap operas to check out the furniture. I mustn’t go on.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    So those of you who found the Brad and Angelina show hopelessly shallow, please tell us on the other thread what you think of “Rize”. Or go and come back and tell us. I’m curious. (It is possible to like both, by the way.)

    -cvj

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  • tom c

    this discussion is little about intelligence and much about heart

    people who find violence–simulated or otherwise–as entertaining are out of my league, thankfully

    that people now accept such mean and nasty movies as “cool”

    makes me happy to have been raised and inspired by the culture of lennon, dylan and other artists who knew that art is about drawing us back to our Source

    Peace

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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