Friday, January 26, 2007

Deconstructing Marriage--Mr. & Mrs. Smith

So, I was up too late last night, watching movies on cable with Mr. Sweetie. And Mr. & Mrs. Smith came on. And I made him leave it on.

It's really a cute movie. I know, that makes me sound like somebody's grandmother, but it is. It's funny and sexy and violent and actually best due to the strong and complicated main characters. It's not exactly charming, but it's a delightful way to spend two hours. Ergo: cute.

One of the things it does devestatingly well is the scripting of the toxicity of a fading love. Early on, the Smith marriage is falling apart and the two Smiths are polite but distant and unable to connect. Before long, that distance translates into contempt, or bitterness, or perhaps just a desire to provoke some authentic display of emotion. But the battlefield is so intimate, so small, that the epic battles seem just petty. Here's the exchange that encapsulates it:

Jane: I got new curtains. They're a little green, so we'll have to recover the couch and get a new rug. Persian?

John: Or, we could just keep the old ones and not have to change anything.

Jane: If you don't like them, we can take them back.

John: Okay, I don't like them.

Jane: You'll get used to them.

See, on paper, it's pretty innocuous. It's the pause she takes before delivering the last line, the slight narrowing of the eyes, the acrid tone of voice that makes it so clear. There is no damn way she's returning the curtains, and he can just stuff it.

This is, of course, the movie which lead to the break-up of one of Hollywood's "golden marriages." But just watch the sequence, in the middle of the movie, where the two of them are stalking each other through their house, using every assassins trick they know to destroy the other before they are destroyed. The way the house is completely destroyed, the physicality of their fight, the unrelenting competition between them--neither one can win, because neither of them can be professional--this fight is far too personal for them to be effective.

Then, once the house is destroyed, they find themselves at a stand-off. Standing arm's length apart, pointing deadly weapons at each other, staring each other down--and John blinks. He looks at this woman and still loves her enough that he can't pull the trigger.

This is, of course, infuriating. Jane can't shoot him in cold blood, and he won't fight. If he won't fight, she can't keep up her anger, and the tears start into her eyes. He pushes away her gun and they kiss. And then the house gets further trashed as they lash each other with their sexual passion.

This sequence is so physical, so violent, so absolutely brimming with fire and sweat and passion--it's just not possible to imagine Brad Pitt going home at night to Jennifer Aniston without understanding just how bland that would have to feel. Jen is a very lovely lady, a very nice lady, warm and humorous and pleasant, and it is literally impossible to imagine her ever trashing a suburban chateau with her lovemaking.

Then, of course, the movie plays itself for humor as well. As all the mayhem rolled through the house, Mr. Sweetie couldn't help but ask "Doesn't anybody hear this?" And, of course, they do--the vapid neighbors come knocking at the door to make sure everything is all right. John answers the door with just his head peeking around the edge--he's dramatically undressed, and then Jane appears behind him, wrapped in a sheet. Mrs. Vapid Neighbor blushes, and her husband offers an implausible explanation--"Doing some redecorating, I guess..."

This movie is (as far as I can tell) the beginning of the apotheosis of Angelina Jolie. Before this movie she was pretty much a freak: a blood-vial-wearing, brother-kissing, tattoo-baring, limo-fucking voodoo witch. She was, frankly, scary. But this movie gave her a new image: fierce still, but elegantly and understatedly so. This was where she cemented her new image as the millenial Sophia Lauren--the black liquid eyeliner, the cat's eye line at the outer corners and the extra-long lashes. The pulled back hair, the minimal lipstick, the animal magnetism. This is where the myth of "Saint Angelina," the U.N. Ambassador, the social conscience for Africa, the mother of small children became accepted.

It's an interesting cultural artifact--the clever dissection of a marriage in trouble, the humorous ribbing of suburban life, the truly American message that the answer to divorce is "More Firepower."

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