RISKY ROMANCE: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Though it’s all champagne and roses at the beginning, marriage is no picnic. Trust me — after eight years of wedded bliss, I’ve learned things about my beloved wife that I never wanted to know about myself, much less another human being. (As for her discussing me, don’t get her started.)
While keeping a marriage together is about as difficult as farting “The Star Spangled Banner” every morning for the rest of your life, breaking up is even worse. Given that, it was only a matter of time before someone wrote a movie where instead of picking up the divorce papers, the two combatants pick up their guns. That movie turns out to be the enjoyable “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.”
Witty, blackly comical, with a deep and thoughtful subtext about marriage, minivans, the seven-year itch, suburbia and how simply telling the truth can bring a couple together, it’s sure to emerge as a low-grade video store favorite in coming years — one of those movies you can watch over and over again and get a laugh out of every time.
When you walk into the theater, be sure to shield your eyes. Megawatt stars-of-the-moment Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie play John and Jane Smith, two white-collar nobodies wasting their comfortable suburban lives chatting about what they did at work and whether the latest dinner would be better with or without peas. What neither of them knows, however, is that both are elite assassins, using their work-a-day jobs as cover for globe-hopping trips to grease arms dealers and terrorists.
When they are sent after the same target, however, their secret identities are revealed, and they set out on a game of killeth thee before ye killeth me. Before long, and after thoroughly demolishing their suburban McMansion with heavy weapons, they figure out that somebody is playing both ends against the middle and pair up to figure out whodunit.
While all this sounds very circa-1989 Stallone, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” is actually very funny in a twisted sort of way. Most of this is due to Pitt and Jolie, who play their roles with grade-school glee, bubbling with genuine chemistry and riffing on one another in a way that — when coupled with Pitt’s recent split from Jennifer “Mrs. Pitt” Aniston — makes you sort of suspect you’ve got a front-row seat to something naughtier than onscreen antics. Too, throughout, “Smith” has a clever subtext about the ups and downs of marriage, so much so that if the Smiths had been dodging bankruptcy instead of a hitman’s bullets, this might have been your run-of-the-mill romantic comedy about married folk. (This includes the stock friend for Pitt, played by Vince Vaughn. You know: never married, lives with his mother, drinks beer three meals a day. The difference is that Vaughn’s character has a tripod-mounted machine gun in his breakfast nook.)
Overall, even if you don’t like shoot-’em-ups, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” Though it’s a bit over the top at times, with a well-written script and real spark between the two principals (one of whom appears — bonus! — in a black rubber dominatrix outfit, and we ain’t talking about Pitt) it’s a real winner.
— By David Koon
A little too punchy
Ron Howard has an unerring eye for choosing great stories, but he brings about as much subtlety to the telling as an episode of “Mayberry RFD.’’ One result is “Cinderella Man,’’ an inspirational tale of might over circumstance, but rather than stepping back and letting the tale work its magic, Howard punches up each poignant moment. Hunger and hungry eyes are oft-repeated themes, intended as tear-coaxing reminders of the suffering endured by working-class heroes sprung from the Great Depression.
It is moving to learn that James J. Braddock, a 1928 heavyweight contender, was obliged to box, though mainly losing his bouts, during the course of a protracted injury, because boxing provided a means of supporting his family. While Braddock dreams of eating steak, and of enough milk for his children, his wife Mae (Renee Zellweger) walks the fine line between easing the frustration that drives husbands away, and interfering with the pride causing Braddock to take his chances in the ring fighting younger, stronger boxers.
Russell Crowe brings everything you could ask of Howard’s favorite actor. The Aussie rescues Braddock from a one-dimensional characterization in a screenplay refusing to let him express the agony of his situation. Crowe uses a litany of nuanced facial expressions and an entire reference library of body language to convey Braddock’s pain and humiliation. The way Crowe hangs his head, or holds it high, implies the state of his inner conflict.
The fight scenes are nothing short of amazing. Braddock and his opponents take awful beatings during which Braddock’s sheer force of will keeps him on his feet. His unusually humane manager and trainer, Joe Gould (Paul Giamatti), invests the role with passion, preventing the actor from sliding into the cartoon territory waiting to draw in a lesser actor. Like Crowe, Giamatti has a knack for visibly wrestling with his inner demons, a characteristic that allows his guilt and shame to surface when he explains, “I thought I saw something in Braddock that I’ve been waiting my entire life to see.’’ Together, Crowe and Giamatti can and do turn trite dialog into poetic ruminations.
Of the three main characters, only Zellweger fails to hit her stride. She’s a fine actress, but wrong for this role. Here she appears obsessed with maintaining a baby doll look suitable the period. When she speaks, we hear the pinched voice of a simpering, self-indulgent woman, who unlike the real Mrs. Braddock, is ill-equipped to deal with the family’s difficult circumstances.
With two marvelous actors, and its meticulous period recreation, “Cinderella Man’’ shakes out as a pretty good story about a man of indomitable inner strength. Had it trusted the audience sufficiently to soft-sell its premise, this could have been a great movie.
— By Lisa Miller