MR. & MRS. SMITH – DVD review

It may not be a great movie, but you can’t say there isn’t some variety in it.

With “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” you get a light, tongue-in-cheek romantic comedy, an exaggerated, heavy-handed screwball comedy, and an all-out action adventure. Moreover, you get them by turns; no mingling of genres here to sidetrack or confuse the viewer. Unfortunately, it’s only the first third of the film that shows much promise, the light comedy part. By the time the fighting starts, things get out of hand very quickly; and then, by the end of the film, you’ve got little more than a second-rate thriller with some of the dumbest scenes of unremitting violence possible.

For the movie’s first few minutes, its title reminds us of Alfred Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy, 1941’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.” In Hitchcock’s film, a married couple discover after years of marriage that they aren’t really married at all. In director Doug Liman’s 2005 version, a married couple discover after a few years of marriage that they’re both undercover assassins working for rival organizations. They each have phony day jobs that they drive to every morning, and then they go off and kill people. The odds that two such folks should unknowingly marry one another and that they should be able to conceal their true identities from one another for so long a time are astronomical, naturally, but that is part of the movie’s initial fun. Regrettably, it’s about the only fun. Once the gimmick wears off–namely once they find out about one another–the story line has nowhere to go.

A bit of trivia I came across indicates that screenwriter Simon Kinberg’s original script went through over fifty drafts by various writers, including continued work by Kinberg himself during production. That’s easy to believe when you see the results. The movie begins frothy and slick, then turns silly, almost slapstick, and finally decides to be about chases, shooting, and mayhem. In the end, it’s all rather muddled together.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play the couple in question, John and Jane Smith, obviously aliases but not aliases so evident that either of them recognizes the coincidence. These two may be the absolute best assassins in the world, but they aren’t exactly the brightest bulbs in the house. Nor does the movie make it clear just whom they are working for; presumably, it’s two different agencies within the U.S. government–CIA, FBI, NSA, DIA, SEC, OPS, MIT, USC, who knows–but how sharp are the agencies if they don’t realize for years that their two top assassins are married to one another, which for reasons unclear is a huge no-no in the business? Well, it was “a slam dunk” for our intelligence chief to say that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so I guess the movie isn’t stretching the truth too far.

Director Doug Liman has had experience with spy capers, having directed “The Bourne Identity” in 2002, but I’m not so sure about his credentials handling a light comedy. Does “Swingers” (1996) count? In “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” Pitt and Jolie’s characters have been married for five years (“Six,” says Jane), five or six years, and now they’re undergoing some marriage counseling. It’s in the counselor’s office that they tell their story in flashback, thereby diminishing any sense of tension or suspense about the outcome of their adventures. They explain how they met and how they came to their present situation.

The couple’s first maneuvers during courtship and early marriage are cute, even though the movie’s expecting us to believe any of it is stretching credulity. As an absurdist comedy, it comes close enough to working. Both John and Jane are stubborn individuals, and when John says to the marriage counselor that at one point he figuratively could have killed his spouse, little did he know. Their domestic life gets progressively more confrontational and combative, while their secret James Bond escapades get more daring.

Then they’re assigned to kill one another, the explanation for which is too convoluted to explain, and things begin to fall apart. Think about it: To begin with, how much sympathy can two paid killers generate in an audience? Then, when they both go after each other, how are we expected to believe there was ever any real love involved between them? Lastly, when they pull guns and knives and bombs on one another, the movie goes south and then totally implodes when they begin conspicuously knocking off U.S. Government agents right and left.

The two stars are good; Pitt and Jolie are appealing actors, and they’re accomplished at being slick and engaging. They’re not the problem. Neither is Vince Vaughn, playing Eddie, one of John’s best friends and probably the funniest person in the story. No, the script is the problem. It has the feeling of having been improvised as it went along, with an ending that’s all noise and a resolution that leaves us wondering how it could have happened. In effect, everything in the plot blows up, and the movie goes down with it. Yet our Mr. and Mrs. Smith obviously survive to live in peace. How’d that happen?

There’s some fancy stunt driving during a freeway sequence that’s fun to watch; there’s some clever repartee between Pitt and Jolie at times; and there’s a particularly felicitous scene at the dining room table that is sure to amuse. Otherwise, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is an exercise in self-destruction.

Fox engineers used a lower bit rate than they usually do to reproduce this movie on disc. As a result, it doesn’t look as good as some of their other DVD releases. However, my judging the disc was compromised by Fox’s latest antipiracy policy of only sending out DVD review copies that have a large sign at the bottom of the screen (and running throughout the movie) reading “Property of 20th Century Fox Publicity Dept.” Still and all, from what I could see, the overall image is very slightly blurred, somewhat bright, and exceptionally glassy. A good deal of backlighting doesn’t help, as it sometimes imparts haloes around the actors that the director may or may not have intended. Flesh tones are most often too dark; and horizontal lines periodically show signs of waviness and fluttering. On the plus side, the image exhibits fairly decent definition and detailing despite the small blur; grain is kept to a minimum; colors other than skin tones look reasonably solid and realistic, and most of the movie’s original 2.35:1 widescreen dimensions are retained in the anamorphic transfer.

What with all the room Fox had left over from a more-compressed video presentation than usual, they included a DTS track along with Dolby Digital 5.1. If the DTS has even more bass response than the DD 5.1 I listened to, it’s probably too much of a good thing. As it is, the DD 5.1 track is very robust, nicely complementing the cartoon violence of the movie. Surround effects are exaggerated, transient noises and dynamic impact are strong, bass is deep, and gunshots and explosions reverberate in all directions.

If you like audio commentaries, you’ll love this DVD; it’s got three of them. The first is by director Doug Liman and screenwriter Simon Kinberg; the second is by producers Akiva Goldsman and Lucas Foster; and the third is by film editor Michael Tronick, production designer Jeff Mann, and visual effects supervisor Kevin Elam. I listened to about ten or fifteen minutes of each of these commentaries, and I honestly can’t say which of them I liked (or disliked) the most. I’m not sure I gleaned much from any of them, and, in fact, if I didn’t know beforehand which one I was listening to, I doubt that I could tell them apart. I’d say you take your choice.

In addition to the all the talk, there are several other things among the extras. Of most interest, there are three deleted scenes, about two or three minutes apiece, in widescreen: “John and Eddie in the Kitchen,” “House Cleaning,” and “HomeMade Store Shootout.” One can see why they were deleted as they appear to add little to the progress of the story. Next, there is a brief, eight-minute featurette, “Making a Scene,” produced as a promotional for the Fox Movie Channel, which describes the evolution of one of the chase scenes, this one involving Pitt and Jolie. After that are a widescreen trailer, a teaser, and a soundtrack spot for “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”; a trailer for “Family Guy”; and an Inside Look at the movie “The Sentinel” with Michael Douglas, Kiefer Sutherland, Eva Longoria, and Kim Basinger. Most of the bonus items also included the Fox antipiracy warning, this time stamped across the center of the screen.

The extras conclude with twenty-eight scene selections, but no chapter insert; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles. Personally, I would rather that Fox had transferred the movie to disc at the highest possible bit rate (eliminating all but one of the audio commentaries to make room) and saved the various extras, plus more, for a second disc. But we have what we have.

Parting Shots:
Pitt and Jolie make an attractive couple, and at least for a short while “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” shows some promise as a charming, witty comedy. Too bad the script runs out of fresh ideas so fast and degenerates so quickly. A friend at DVD Depot in Pleasant Hill, CA, remarked that the movie tends to make killing seem like a leisure-time activity.

Professional boxers are told to make their biggest splash toward the end of each round because that will impress the judges scoring a fight; likewise, movies often save their best stuff for the finish in order to make a lasting impression on an audience. In the case of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” that lasting impression is one of loud, uncontrolled, hyperkinetic chaos: Nothing left that’s smart, fun, or funny.