Even the title is evocative: Mr and Mrs Smith calls to mind a classic Hollywood star vehicle of the past, the identically named 1941 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In that picture, two stars of the era, Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard, played a "squabbling Punch and Judy," according to the New York Times review.
Today's Mr and Mrs Smith, played by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie -- as everyone within range of a billboard or bus stop must know by now -- are still squabbling. But now they are hired killers, working for rival companies, who set out to assassinate each other.
Almost in spite of itself, the new movie remains a romantic comedy in the tradition that Hitchcock, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra perfected more than half a century ago. Those giant figures of Pitt and Jolie in the omnipresent marketing campaign descend from the heyday of Gable and Lombard, when such glamour treatment was lavished on major stars.
While movie stars now command far heftier salaries than those legendary performers ever dreamed of -- and still have a lock on the US' magazine covers -- it's actually rare to find a movie today that is motored by sheer star power. As films grew more expensive, studios got nervous about entrusting them to mere mortals. Instead, they began to shelter even the biggest stars with special effects, comic-book trappings or familiar franchises.
In the latest version of War of the Worlds, for example, Tom Cruise has to do little more than look terrified or ferociously determined as he battles alien invaders; the main attractions are the flying saucers and the spectacular conflagrations. In the new adaptation of the television series Bewitched, Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell are depending on viewers' affection for beloved sitcom characters. The concept is the star, and the actors are really just along for a ride on the broomstick.
Mr and Mrs Smith
Directed by: Doug Liman
Starring: Angelina Jolie (Jane Smith) and Brad Pitt (john Smith)
Running time: 119 minutes
Taiwan Release: Wednesday, June 8
Pitt and Jolie, of course, will be surrounded by expensive special effects and ferocious gunbattles when Mr and Mrs Smith opens this week. But the pair will still have to banter, flirt, display their star wattage -- and put their oversized celebrity personas on the line.
In that sense this new movie is a lot more demanding than their other recent projects. Pitt was basically a piece of swinging weaponry in Troy, and he melted into the wisecracking ensembles of Ocean's Eleven and Ocean's Twelve, while Jolie struck poses as Lara Croft and spouted an indecipherable accent for her supporting role in the stillborn Alexander.
In their new movie, the two actors will have to face the music. They're both front and center in a battle-of-the-sexes comedy that depends on movie-star magnetism. The question audiences will answer is whether these two highly publicized stars have the sizzle to keep a vital romantic movie tradition alive. And an even more important question hangs in the balance: Does Hollywood still have the know-how to refresh one of its tastiest formulas?
When It Happened One Night swept the Oscars in 1934, it established a new kind of romantic comedy, one that depended on a battle of wits between two strong-willed lovers. In that movie, Claudette Colbert played a runaway heiress, and Clark Gable was a cynical newspaper reporter who didn't let on that he knew her real identity. In other words, their relationship was marked by suspicion and deception as well as by an undercurrent of desire, and that mixture of attraction and antagonism is what some of the best romantic movies possess.