It seems oddly retrograde to be talking about “the battle of the sexes” in the post-feminist landscape of 2005, (unless we’re discussing the latest Road Rules/Real World challenge), but fundamentally, the dramatic conflict of the heteronormative relationship is as essential to cinema history as gangsters or vampires and just as gory. Comedy, the screwball comedy, is predicated on a power struggle leading up to, within, or post- marriage. The terrors of married life, as Guy Maddin puts it in the epilogue of Cowards Bend the Knee (review forthcoming), are most explicitly evoked in the comedies of Preston Sturges, where the strong female character of the pre-code comedies has devolved into a capricious force of nature capable of destroying a man’s life at a whim.
The post-feminist evolution of the comedy brought the male/female protagonists to equality - but what an equality! All the rough edges were shorn away, and the conflict resolution of these films had the mates fitting together like sticky, overdetermined puzzle pieces. Recently, especially in your standard TV sitcom, we often see a new paradigm - the ineffectual man-schlub and his bossy (but hot, very hot, wife).
The problem with these reversals and “subversions” of gendered traits is that they’re boring and predictable, and most of the joy of going to a movie is in being surprised. While an explicitly homosocial screwball is theoretically possible, the audience for such a comedy still remains slim, not to mention the other hazards involved. How can a non-sexist, non-boring power dynamic (for power in a relationship is always dynamic. No two partners are equally successful, equally talented, equally good-looking - unless they’re Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) be created in a relationship comedy?
2003’s Secretary hinted at the answer: Turn the implicit power relationship explicit, whether in an S&M context, or with the husband and wife trying to blow each other up with bombs, shooting each other with guns, or literally kicking each other while they’re down. Moreso than the overrated Sin City was a “hyper-noir,” Mr. and Mrs. Smith is a “hyper-screwball,” and it doesn’t make a lick of sense. This tale of married paid killers ends in a re-marriage - an orgy of gunfire and faceless corpses. How does this restore balance to the male/female relationship? Well, it doesn’t. It establishes an equilibrium of Asshole and Douche in a relationship with the World - the profane universe outside the sacred marriage - as Hammett.
Director Doug Liman was responsible for 1996’s Swingers, perhaps the clearest example of Asshole/Douche confusion in recent cinema history. The lead character in that film, who I will call Jon Favreau, acts like he is a Douche - trying to maximize his douche behavior for personal success. However, this strategy clearly does not work out for him. It is only when he realizes that he is fact an Asshole and acts according that he gains power (ie, women). The key to knowing which role one plays in a relation is to figure out what you want:
What does Asshole want?
The Asshole wants her way. She cares about how getting her way or not getting her way makes her feel.
What does Douche want?
The Douche wants his partner to feel how he feels. When the partner doesn’t feel the same way, the douche is hurt. The Douche’s primary concern is how the other person is making him feel (about himself).
As my gendered pronouns indicate, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the male characters is the Douche, the female, the Asshole. Brad Pitt’s douche is constantly setting up needy “trust tests” for Mrs. Smith to take (ie, not kill him). He is passive-aggressively giving up power (the power of life and death) in order to find out how his partner really feels about him. So he puts himself in a booby trapped elevator, lays down his gun, asks the Asshole to tango. Asshole Angelina Jolie, who is explicitly a “dom” in one scene, totally edits out any information that Pitt’s character might have a different opinion than hers. She is completely focused on her self and her work.
It is only in the heat of combat (and sex) that the Asshole and Douche are able to lay aside their conflict and “switch” a bit. The part in the movie that got the biggest laughs was when Pitt repeatedly booted a fallen Jolie (though she was behind an overturned sofa) in a sissy-esque manner. At the end of the film, after the carnage, we’re treated to a scene where Pitt brags about how much sex he’s gotten recently.
Obviously, a world in which people act as Assholes or Douches is a nihilistic one. There’s no outside referent to the rectitude of behavior. The fact that the characters occupations are Assassins is telling. At one point, they reveal to each other that they never lose sleep over killing someone. In earlier Assassin comedies, for example, Grosse Point Blank, the Assassin at least has some bad feelings about what he does, though the wholesale slaughter is still played for laughs. Here, the film goes all the way, taking the “Us against the world” theme of marriage comedies and turning the outside world into literal nobodies, who can be killed with no consequences whatsover. However, at some point, the killing has to end. Am I right? At that point, this relationship is going to be in deep trouble.
What’s clear is that in order for this relationship to thrive, there must be a Hammett involved, and I’m not talking about the therapist (all Hammetts, incidentally). May I suggest Mr. and Mrs. and Junior Smith?
Mr. and Mrs. Smith has joined the Summer Movie Comparison Chart. It’s playing everywhere.