Doug Liman’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith should throw most summer moviegoers for a loop. Mainstream blockbusters always moralize, with different degrees of sincerety. There is always a message, and a “point,” with one value (e.g. loyalty) given precedence over another (e.g. greed). Of course that’s no accident: it makes people comfortable to see “traditional” notions of morality reaffirmed for them on the screen in an inoffensive way, and it makes the filmmakers think that they have done something valuable, when more often than not they’ve simply wasted everyone’s time.
What makes Mr. and Mrs. Smith such a rare occurence is its utter, absolute, unapologetic amorality. The characters’ decisions are motivated by some sort of moral code — though since nine times out of ten the motivation is self-interest, it could be argued that it’s no moral code at all — but the movie outwardly has nothing to tell us or teach us. As such, it eschews not only moralizing but the sentimentality and mawkishness that usually accompanies it, leaving nothing but an offbeat, self-assured action comedy that is the perfect antidote to the turgidity of Cinderella Man.
Spies/assassins/superheroes living family lives as a cover-up is not a terribly original plot hook, with The Incredibles putting an animated spin on it just last year. But Liman and screenwriter Simon Kinberg acknowledge the cliches even as they make full use of them; the film opens and closes with the titular couple talking to an unseen marriage counselor. The conversations are a hoot; the humor is both obvious and sneaky, as Kinberg lets the laughs emerge not from the words themselves but from their context. The scenes are funny because, not in spite of, what happens between them.
A lot happens between them. The film is backloaded with action, as chases, shootouts and fights duke it out for attention even despite the nearly two hour running time. What makes it work is the way that the action is never just action; every sequence reveals something about the characters, and the sharp dialogue continues even into the midst of the loudest, most protracted set piece. Mr. and Mrs. Smith rarely goes on auto-pilot.
Most of the film’s charms are simple — the high concept goes a long way, the acting is highly amusing, the writing sharp as a tack without being profound. The music by John Powell is great spy movie stuff, worthy of purchase. The movie is at its weakest when the focus shifts to plot, and there was a stretch at the beginning of the third act when it began to lose me. An unnecessary character reenters the story, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith continues to wind up when, in all fairness, it should have been winding down. Because of this, the movie is more exhausting than it ought to be, though it remains clever and even ingenious right up until the end, closing on one of the best lines of the year.
You’ll forgive me for quibbling a bit despite the indisputable fact that I loved this film. I tend to enjoy Hollywood product, but I tend to become frustrated with the rules that constrain it — there is a way certain things must be, you hear people claim, or else “there wouldn’t be a movie.” Doug Liman, whose roots are in independent cinema, is perfectly happy to go to Hollywood and break all the rules he can get his hands on. Mr. and Mrs. Smith leaves out some things you would think necessary, includes some you wouldn’t expect, and in the process comes up with an original, ceaselessly entertaining summer concoction.