Pitt's John Smith sits in the chair, looking typically restless with his perfectly framed face and broad shoulders, snapping his head every now and then and looking away before fixing that blue-eyed gaze that women beg to have aimed their way. It's a neat but old trick that's served Pitt well over the years -- his go-to move, so to speak. Then there's Jolie. Waiting for the next question from the shrink, her Jane Smith wears a fake smile and a composure that neatly masks her frustration. When she crisply pounces to correct John on the amount of time they've been together -- you women and your damn memory! -- she does so with cat-like precision. In other words, Angelina Jolie gets it; she knows it's not just enough to be drop-dead gorgeous.
The true gift of an actor is mystery; you want to know the secret they're hiding. Jolie more than most Hollywood actresses understands this; Pitt, not so much, but what he lacks in mystery he more than makes up for in self-assurance. Pitt is no master thespian, but he has proven in roles like Twelve Monkeys and especially Fight Club (where, in hindsight, he blew Edward Norton off the screen) that when properly motivated he can bring some primal fire behind that facile magnetism. In other words, he can be dangerous. You have to wonder if all that camera mugging with the Ocean's gang has robbed him of his mystery.
Regardless, Pitt and Jolie face off nicely in Doug Liman's Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a movie that (sometimes clumsily) tries to juggle the genres of romantic comedy and action-adventure with little atonal moments of dramatic wistfulness. Liman's a promising young director who came on the scene with the L.A. hipster flick Swingers (1996), kept his cool with the subsequent ensemble piece Go (1999) and turned Matt Damon into an action figure with 2002's The Bourne Identity. (He deferred to Paul Greengrass in last year's sequel, The Bourne Supremacy.) I missed the latter film but have to wonder how much of that movie may have seeped into Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In fact, I wonder if Liman really has the tools to explore much of anything beyond the macho codes that have marked his previous films. His characters are often too cool for school even if he sometimes allows them to hang themselves with such velvet ropes. Call him a younger, less complicated John Huston, who marveled at men under pressure.
John Smith, smirks and all, is indeed a man under the gun; he's trying to maintain domestic tranquility while covering for the fact that his day job is as a contract killer. The joke, of course, is that Jane is running the same scam, which sets off a series of initially interesting questions. Do we too often put our work before our relationships? How do we define a happy marriage? Does the thrill of the kill kill the thrill of sex? Indeed, Liman liberally pilfers a line from Prizzi's Honor (the most recent killers-in-love film, with Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson) by evoking a different kind of jealousy over a different kind of "body count" the murderous couple swaps notes over. So we get a little bit of Prizzi's Honor and, once they discover each other's dark secret, a little bit of The War of the Roses, Danny DeVito's surprisingly dark 1989 comedy featuring feuding couple Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas. (All of us who called Kathleen Turner a man-killer in Body Heat had no idea how right we were.)
So Jack and Jane try to work out their marital difficulties first by trying to kill each other and later by trying to redefine their lie of a marriage by joining forces when the gun is pointed in their direction for a change. And while Liman is great at keeping the pace moving with little bits of business -- he's a master of when to drop in a cheeky one-liner, like after aborted mutual hit attempts they both say to each other, "I missed you" -- he's not much for continuity. The movie simply shifts moods as it does its little genre dance.
But does it really matter? Liman, like all of us, knows why we're here, and it's to watch Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have fun and create a few sparks. That Liman doesn't let them go at each other more sexually than violently might be a quibble, too, because at the end of the day, they're really just looking for a hit. And they've probably found one.