In a memorable early scene from Ernst Lubitsch's screwball classic Trouble In Paradise, two master thieves perform a beautifully choreographed dance of seduction by picking each other's pockets, each marveling at the other's exquisite technique. It's funny enough that getting robbed turns them on, but the scene works because it has a thief's timingswift and effortless. An ambitious action-comedy about a marriage between hired assassins, Mr. & Mrs. Smith tries for a similar dynamic on an exponentially larger scale, but grace notes are usually the first thing to go once a budget reaches nine figures. Still, director Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity) never allows spectacle to overwhelm character, and his bone-dry comic touch reins in an overproduced blockbuster and complements the terrific chemistry between his two tabloid stars, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith opens with Pitt and Jolie in marriage counseling, seeking to recapture the spark that's gone missing from what has grown into a sterile suburban coupling. They wistfully recall their passionate first meeting in Bogotá, Columbia, though neither seemed to question what the other one was doing there. As it turns out, they're both top assassins for separate agencies, each working strenuously to keep the other from knowing the truth about their jobs, which has inevitably caused some intimacy problems over the long haul. When both are assigned to pick off a heavily guarded prisoner (The OC's Adam Brody), they quickly discover each other's identities and are forced by trade to eliminate the competition, which converts their tastefully decorated home into a shooting gallery. The situation also brings out long-simmering tensions in their marriage, and gives them the freedom to sound off on everything from their tepid sex lives to those hideous new drapes.
There's no denying the high-concept gimmickry that has summoned Mr. & Mrs. Smith into existence, but what sounds in principle like a pitch for a TV pilot instead plays like an old-fashioned romantic comedy with updated hardware. Always better as an unhinged goofball than as a bronzed demigod in period garb, Pitt gives a loose-limbed performance that ricochets nicely off Jolie's cool, unaffected sultriness. The knowing glibness occasionally spoils the funa problem that also plagued Liman's Go and Swingersbut it's rare that an action-comedy succeeds so swimmingly on both fronts. Rarely does a word like "deft" come to mind when viewing any film released between May and August, but Liman and company make it all look easy.