Love Among the Ruins

Photo: Stephen Vaughn/Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Mr. & Mrs. Smith works on almost every level and against all odds. Its premise is gimmicky: Two married assassins who don’t know each other’s occupation discover that their latest assignment-to-kill is … each other. But this plot hook proves sharp and often delightfully, sometimes brutally, funny. And the film’s pre-release publicity—stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, each fresh out of previous relationships, were said to be snogging—not only doesn’t interfere with the pleasure, it actually enhances it: There’s such piquant chemistry between these two, I watched in a happily muddled state, mixing up everything I think I know about the actors’ private lives with the wittily exciting action-lives they’re leading onscreen. The result, thanks to the stars’ nonstop slyness and director Doug Liman’s signature stylistic paradox—breezy breathlessness—is a cool summer thriller whose laughs don’t slow down the suspense. It’s the only movie you’ll see in which the cozy exchange “I missed you,” “I missed you, too,” becomes a pun about shooting each other.

As John Smith, Pitt uses the cover story that he works “in construction” with his buddy-in-intrigue Eddie (a yammeringly hilarious Vince Vaughn). Jolie’s Jane Smith is ostensibly a happy suburban housewife who takes pride in her new choice of drapes. Their true identities emerge when they accept assignments from their separate employers (some silliness about rescuing the film’s human red herring, a kidnapped kid played by The O.C.’s drily sarcastic Adam Brody).

Liman, who proved he could do modern screwball comedy directing 1996’s Swingers and steel-nerved action sequences with 2002’s The Bourne Identity, makes the melding of these genres look effortless, a significant achievement. Pitt and Jolie complement each other superbly: He’s loose-limbed yet muscular, always ready with a wisecrack (this is, among other things, what the hepcat comedy Ocean’s Twelve wasn’t); she’s the only actress around right now who can throw knives and leap off tall buildings with convincing flair. (Memo to the 007 producers: Ever think about a Jane Bond franchise?)

The movie has the clever nerve to play into our tabloid knowledge of the supposed Pitt-Jolie hookup by presenting it as a dangerous liaison: a terrific sequence in which they go from beating each other up to turning each other on, all to the perfectly chosen, soulful lurch of Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s 1970 hit “Express Yourself.”

Now go back to my first paragraph, please: I said the movie works on almost every level. But eventually, almost inevitably, it proves too long to sustain its conceit; there are a few too many husband-and-wife-bashing scenes, and when Mr. & Mrs. Smith begins to remind you of the Michael Douglas–Kathleen Turner 1989 clunker The War of the Roses, you sense the new movie is wilting. But before it loses steam, Mr. & Mrs. Smith is the rare movie that both captures its pop-culture moment and transcends it. People will watch it long after the stars have moved on to other on- and offscreen conquests.

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.

With tidy alliteration, the title announces the movie’s intentions: Batman begins his revenge against evildoers who killed his parents and who bedevil the rest of Gotham City, itself a secret identity for Manhattan. He begins the restoration of his reputation after previous Bat-director Joel Schumacher put nipples on his costume and drivel in his mouth.

It all sounded so good on paper: Intelligent director (Memento’s Christopher Nolan) and adventurous actor (Christian Bale, beefcaked up, post-Machinist) unite to retell the origin of one of the few superheroes without superpowers—Batman relies on guile and strength. Screenwriter David Goyer even picked a nicely semi-obscure villain from the comic books, the Scarecrow (28 Days Later’s Cillian Murphy).

But Begins, at two-hours-plus, is a nonstarter. It takes too long to get past little-boy Bruce Wayne (Gus Lewis) and have him become a wealthy playboy pining for a childhood sweetheart who grows up to be Katie Holmes (she walks through the film with skeptical reserve). The Scarecrow onscreen is just a strenuous jerk who puts a burlap bag with eyeholes cut into it over his head, and who fogs people’s minds with nightmares. If Nolan and Goyer stint on the villain’s showiness (in theory not a bad thing, when you remember Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ludicrously garish Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin), they overdo random items, such as turning the Batmobile into a cumbersome tanklike vehicle. There are many long, noisy car chases and collisions. Why does Batman ride the ’mobile over police cars, crushing them? You say I’m carping; I quote Goyer in the press notes: “One of Chris’s mantras was … ‘It has to be real.’”

“Real” is not Batman making pancakes of cop cars. “Real” is not what we want from a superhero blowout; we want impossible thrills—heightened yet demotic lyricism. As the latest jaw-beneath-the-cowl, Bale makes his voice raspy for a menace that does not convince. Only Michael Caine, as trusty but crusty butler Alfred, turns in anything like a “real” performance. The best thing about Batman Begins is the generous spirit Bruce Wayne’s father imparts to him as a wee lad: “Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.” Exactly: not to flatten things, be they cars or our spirits.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Directed by Doug Liman.
20th Century Fox. PG-13.

Batman Begins
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Warner Brothers. PG-13.

Love Among the Ruins