Home > Movies > Mr and Mrs Smith: Sexiness is next to Godliness.

Mr and Mrs Smith: Sexiness is next to Godliness.

Mr and Mrs Smith hardly set the world on fire when it sloped into cinemas back in 2005. This kind of comedy action thriller featuring two of the biggest and sexiest stars on the planet ought to have been a huge hit with audiences and an acknowledged guilty pleasure for the critics, but it seems that mistaken expectations and an ideological subtext that modern western sensibilities still don’t seem to be ready for yet instead managed to send this movie straight into the bargain bins. Director Doug Liman, of course, was responsible for introducing the film world to Jason Bourne, a new modern breed of macho action hero whose world doesn’t stand still for twenty seconds barely giving himself or his audience much of a chance to breathe for air in between explosions and punch ups1. A flippant, cocky, feminist battle of the sexes would hardly have been the kind of follow up that any one would have expected or remotely wanted.

Why do I get the girl gun?

Furthermore it seems to me as if Angelina Jolie is a kind of cinematic poison. As a beautiful being and Hollywood star she has many admirers of both sexes2, but yet her movies have a tendency to be met with a lukewarm reception and in recent years her online male advocates seem to have have turned against her, as exampled for instance by the hostile reception to her neat little action thriller of last year, Salt. This can be traced back to negative comments in discussions regarding her credibility as an action heroine in Tomb Raider, apparently far too sexual to be fronting that kind of movie3. How could she possibly be both gorgeous and attractive and a figure of feminine empowerment? This is a much discussed question so without digresssing too greatly, but in my opinion Jolie is sexy in Tomb Raider because she presents herself with authority and charisma, not just because she has big boobs, and in terms of feminine empowerment/representation I would continue to argue that Lara Croft and Tomb Raider represented a step forward for female representation in Hollywood. The problem is that society has often clung to the idea that female sexual empowerment, being attractive, being in control having a good time is somehow diametrically opposed to genuine feminism concerns and that what is important is expressing “feminine traits” like sensitivity, emotion and caring and being able to do this alongside and to work with masculinity.4. Of course the two aren’t mutually exclusive but it’s led to a convenient loophole for males who can now more confidently state, for instance, that Casino Royale is a feminist Bond movie, in which Eva Green both quips at Bond and shows her emotional side by crying, and cling on to their masculine identity ideals through Bond who is continued to be portrayed as the insensitive, brash, male hero5. Jolie is a huge threat to that male identity, since she’s the one with the guns, she’s the sexual one (further threatening to male pride since she’s attractive to girls) and she’s also the one who ends up saving the day.

In short, this film was always going to be a challenge to market. It’s not a brainless action movie with a brutish male lead and a hot, ineffectual female hanger-on. Neither is it a straightforward comedy battle of the sexes in which the male lead gets to continually make flippant derogatory comments about women and still be called progressive.6 What it is, however, in all its niche-ness, is an incredibly funny comedy action thriller that redefines sexual politics in modern western action cinema with a subtext that is extremely affirmative regarding the representative possibilities of the female action heroine. There are two further things in particular that particularly elevate this movie and make it a noteworthy cinematic entry in my eyes. Firstly the film’s feminism is very inclusive. There’s a place for men in this world and it’s still holding guns. Men can still be men, men can still have penises and men can still be attracted to women if they want those things. The only caveat being that they acknowledge that women can do this too. Secondly, the pairing of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt is GODLY. M&MS is a movie about sex and sexual chemistry and no two stars ever had more on-screen together since Bogart and Baccall. The movie plays out over a series of subtle and sly nods and winks the couple make towards each other, both actors knowing instinctively how to play to the camera and to each other and both obviously love doing so7. And did I mention how god-damn sexy the both of them are are? Make no mistake Brad and Angelina onscreen are sizzling.

ZOMG she’s HAWT. Call the decency police.

But how exactly is an action thriller like this a feminist movie beyond the fact that it has a hot babe shooting guns a la the rather dreadful Tomb Raider? Some critics picked up on the fairly obvious fact that Mr and Mrs Smith was a movie about marriage and the film’s central witticism that Pitt and Jolie’s sex life improved as the gun play became more intense. Renowned critics such as Ebert aren’t able or willing to dig any deeper than this, which is a shame since it led them to miss out on the most interesting aspects of the film8. John and Jane Smith are both essentially living a lie – a state of domestic “bliss” – in order to maintain their cover for their double lives of being secret agents. What this bliss entails is a very humdrum ordinary suburban existence which involves a big house, a big car, Jane getting the cooking and worrying about the curtains and John asking Jane for the salt at dinnertime. As Jane puts it in a counselling session “there’s a space between the two of them full of all of the things that they don’t say to each other” With this kind of formalised existence, this kind of vacuum necessarily opens up and eventually becomes a gaping chasm. The main allegory of this movie is that this kind of life, the suburban idyll that most people crave, is equivalent to living a lie in which one is not just not true to oneself but also not true to one’s gender. The couple are living in bad faith and it’s only when something out of the ordinary happens that they are able to face up to the lies that they have been living and embrace their true potential as human beings.

The high point comes around the midpoint of the movie, a virtuosic scene in which the couple, having realised that their only course of action is to kill one another find themselves back at their home and proceed to literally blow it apart in an attempt to achieve their objective. Gunplay has never so effectively been foreplay as, unlike most gunplay movies, it’s not just the man showing off his virility to the audience, but a scene in which the couple effectively blow away the lies, deceit and mundanity of their former lives, and realising that having done so they’re free to be passionate about each other – and to passionately fuck – again. The actual sex or violence isn’t shown graphically but the scenes preceding it show an extraordinary amount of physicality and brutality. Initially its debris from the house that flies everywhere, but this ultimately turns into a fistfight between the two, in which unusually Jolie is in no single way shown as Pitt’s inferior, and unlike other representations of women in western action/big budget cinema9 she can happily dish out and take a physical beating. There’s something refreshing about watching a male/ female fight play out in such an open and equal way, and in no sense are the audience even led to feel that Pitt shouldn’t be kicking his wife behind the sofa . Instead she simply retorts by punching him in the groin..

As the scene ends a mexican standoff ensues and Johnt acknowledges, much to Jane’s frustration, that he can’t or won’t pull the trigger. Jane wants him to, since in a traditional non-feminist world the male would naturally attempt to conquer the female and this would give Jane the justification to retaliate, emasculating John and thereby empowering herself. John’s backing down then is a particularly powerful statement here as it enables them both to realise that this battle of the sexes conflict is emphatically not a good way forward.

The movie continues to discuss notions of gender equality from this point as the pair, having discovered a better way forward as a couple, team up to defend themselves against the people that want to see them dead. For instance, as John arms the two, picking up the bigger weapon for himself, Jane quips “why do I get the girl gun?”. John can’t really answer and surrenders the weapon. Later. as the two discuss their past lives honestly, John acknowledges numbers with an air of superiority “How many? Ok… I’ll go first, then. I don’t keep exact count, but I’d say, uh, high 50s, low 60s. I mean, I know I’ve been around the block an all, but.. ” Jane retorts with a lot less fuss “312“ and at John’s confusion follows up “some were two at a time”. This can, of course, be read as a euphemism for sex as well as violence, but either way there’s no prejudice in the film-making, just an acknowledgement that Jane is a powerful woman and that she’s in control.

The movie draws to a close with an extended gun battle in a department store. It’s an extension of the point made earlier in the film as, via a great satirical nod to Schwarzennegger’s uber-masculine movie Commando (the two, injured, pause for breath and re-arm themselves in a toolshed), the couple blast their way through a number of suburban dreams including a DIY shop, kitchenware, home furnishings, gardening and Christmas decorations. It’s extremely over the top and yet I can think of little more powerful in modern cinema than the shot of Mr and Mrs Smith standing back to back, guns pointed facing the world whilst missiles and explosions surround them. It’s not powerful because it’s really that emotional, the power and emotion comes from the realisation that w’ere watching a progressive couple battling together against societal forces that favour backward gender relations.

The very final scene hilariously alludes back to the opening counselling scene. The couple are no longer actually interested in the counselling or discussing their life at home and John asks the counsellor to ask the “sex question”. The answer is, of course, ten. This isn’t just flippancy or a cheap gag, though Pitt’s delivery of these lines shows why he’s one Hollywood’s leading men, since he’s sexy, funny and cute here. The movie is undoubtedly a passionate champion of sex and sexuality and believes that couples should fundamentally share this kind of connection if they are to have a meaningful relationship as a couple. All action movies are about sex but Mr and Mrs Smith is one of the few that puts forward the case for sexuality being explored and enjoyed by both sexes. I would suggest that a large reason why this film didn’t appeal to a predominantly male critical audience is that male audiences don’t tend to respond well to this kind of message. Furthermore a lot of the appeal of the movie rests on Pitt and Jolie’s sexual charisma both towards each other and the camera and heterosexual audiences of this film probably felt bombarded by mixed sexual messages; is one supposed to be identifying with Pitt or Jolie, since both are leading the film and both appear to be equally attractive and persuasive? With identity of action heroes/heroines also come sexual identity and its there that those scoring a one on the Kinsey scale are likely to switch off .

Furthemore, Pitt’s performance is a sexually confusing one. Male figures in action movies are traditionally figures that men think of as, and generally want women to find attractive; whether that’s the smooth sophisticate of Brosnan’s James Bond,the hard bodies of Schwarzenneger and Van Damme or the thuggish demeanour of Jason Statham or Daniel Craig; men don’t find them threatening in the face of the camera. Brad Pitt on the other hand invites his audiences in – both male and female – to admire him, mentally and physically, by constantly winking at and playing up to the camera. His persona doesn’t create space or distance like say, Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis, it draws people in towards him.  Jolie, likewise, doesn’t apologise for her overt sexuality, she’s not the expected male submissive fantasy and whilst in conversation I’ve generally found that it’s women who are attracted to her, those that aren’t prepared to explore non-heterosexual fantasies are likely to find her demeanour a little too aggressive.

To sum up, Pitt, Jolie and Liman have created this movie for a gender neutral audience, trusting that those that would want to see it could see past traditional masculine/menine action-movie types, leaving their expectations at the door and accepting a new method of both thinking about gender and fantasizing about it. Mr and Mr Smith was, in my opinion, a movie aimed at liberal, feminist, bisexual audiences and as such I think that it’s a roaring success. Unfortunately, in any meaningful sense,that audience still doesn’t really exist, so until it does, we’ll just have to get back to watching more Jason Bourne.

1 Make no mistake, I love the Bourne franchise and its reinvigoration of the action genre which sorely needed it, but it ‘s really not above reproach.

2 Count the number of “If I were to go lesbian, I’d have sex with Angelina Jolie” conversations you’ve had in your life up to this point…

3 For instance here’s an article that really doesn’t think it healthy for society to take its sexual cues from Angelina.

4 Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus enshrines this kind of very common thinking pattern.

5 And in Casino Royale he’s an updated hero for the 00s to boot! That is, he’s quite a bit like Jason Statham in his brute thuggishness … I intend to write on this in the near future!

6 Judd Apatow, anyone?

7 I’m not going to mention the fact that they are a couple. There’s more to acting than being married I suppose.

8 Ebert’s tentative review.

9 Lovers of action cinema should note that in Hong Kong, whilst it’s fair to say that the male star still carries greater kudos, women have always been portrayed as strong and physical. Most notably in the films of Michelle Yeoh. HK male stars such as Jet Li and Jackie Chan are undoubtedly more interested in toying with masculine sensibilities too.


  1. March 21, 2011 at 7:21 am

    That was wonderful. It’s a movie I’ve liked in a mild way heretofore, but I think you’ve put your finger on a kind of depth that I suspected might be there, but couldn’t identify. I totally agree that it’s a very sexy film. Some parts don’t work for me (for some reason, I found the minivan car chase to be a bit too jokey, even in the context of the film; a bit of unnecessary “action beat” padding), but for the most part, it’s lithe and lively. Re: Brad Pitt’s appeal, I think he is sort of an “American” ideal, if you’ll forgive my presumption. He’s macho without being a redneck; he’s smooth without being “gentlemanly.” He’s well-rounded without being “metrosexual.” His character here does operate on a lot of the assumptions associated with stale sexual politics, but the persona he’s cultivated is sort of like the Ultimate Goal. If that’s not “American,” then again, I apologize for the presumption, but for all Jolie’s sexuality, it’s kind of rare to get the impression that she’s turned on. In this movie, she’s definitely as turned on as Pitt is.

    I’m regretting that we gave away our DVD copy now. I guess we’ll have to pick it up on Blu-Ray the next time we get a coupon.

  2. Alex M
    March 21, 2011 at 6:10 pm

    Thank you Matt!

    It was a movie I liked in a mild way until I rewatched it recently and it just struck me as a lot cleverer, funnier and sexier than I’d first thought. (bit hypocritical for me to moan about the poor reviews then, I guess). I’m not sure how you’d feel about it necessarily, I think you’ll totally dig the humour and the subtext and the sass but part of me thinks you’ll find it slightly lacking in emotional depth.

    I’m fascinated by what you say about Brad Pitt. At this stage I’ll say that i think yes you’re right in some respects but in others I probably disagree. i think that brad Pitt is one of those slippery performers, a bit like Clint Eastwood, who on some levels looks quite straightforward, but underneath when you look into the range of roles and performances they’ve done you can pick out so much depth and nuance to what he does both performance wise and ideologically, that it’s impossible to pin him down to something like the “American ideal”. I think, as an actor, the American ideal is something that;s always strongly there in the background and at times he’s probably straightforwardly playing that but….

    …I’m getting ahead of myself because a whole portion of this blog is going to be devoted to me watching and talking about Brad Pitt performances because Brad Pitt is great and what you raised is the very question i want to go away and think about!!!

  3. March 22, 2011 at 1:50 am

    Pitt is a very versatile performer, but I also think he’s one of the few genuine “stars” working at the moment. He has a certain vibe, a certain look, a certain persona that has been successfully cultivated. When someone says, “Wow, he looks like Brad Pitt,” they could be referring to someone who looks nothing like Pitt, but has that ineffable quality of a true star. When people bring up Pitt, I think the image that comes readily to mind is that one that’s consonant with his character in Ocean’s Eleven, or maybe Tyler Durden. “Coolness.” They might think of him in that old school romantic way, a la Meet Joe Black or Legends of the Fall (films I haven’t seen, but you can tell just looking at the trailers) — films that I imagine are similar to his role in Interview with the Vampire. He’s sort of got three modes: Mr. Cool, Mr. Grubby Intensity, and Mr. Harlequin. I think nearly every Brad Pitt movie has a scene where he gives someone a level gaze with those piercing eyes, and you get that sense that he’s simultaneously totally unknowable and that you’re getting to see a flash of the “real” him through the character. Not every star has the same way of getting at that feeling, but I think it’s why people connect with the Greats. As you say: impossible to pin down. Yet everyone knows it when they see it.

    I agree that hogging Brad Pitt all to America isn’t quite right; I also agree that he is slippery. But he’s got a lot going for him in the sense of that “It” factor, and when I see him onscreen in a new film, there’s a part of me that goes, “Oh, so that’s how we see ourselves now.” “We” being Americans. He just seems to be able to tap into that. It’s probably just me that thinks that. I don’t think that about a lot of actors, but I love that he’s one of the few to have maintained a persona even with his versatility, and that’s he always comes across as Mr. America.

    At any rate, I’m looking forward to more ruminations on Brad Pitt as you go along. He’s one of my favorites in a kind of detached way, and I always find him fascinating to watch just sit there and *exist.* It’s probably one of the reasons I love Assassination of Jesse James so much.

    So, yeah. Keep posting. 🙂

  4. March 22, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    I’ve tended to be ‘too cool’ for hollywood stuff, so I never got why I liked the Smiths (don’t seek it out, but eg when it’s on telly I always try to at least catch the bit of the gunfight where ‘brangelina’ are back to back defending themselves as a unit against the world…). Thankyou for making that reaction make sense, it’s like having had a little cerebral massage.

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