Friday, June 17, 2005

Mr. and Mrs. Smith: An Allegory about Marriage

Mr. and Mrs. Smith … who ARE these people? to paraphrase one of the great lines from this movie, which stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

According to one review, “John and Jane Smith are a happily married couple who work as assassins for rival firms.” Another reviewer considers it two movies in one, the first, “a sly comedy/thriller worthy of Hitchcock,” and the other, “a big noisy summer action flick.”

I agree it’s two movies, but I’d merge the action-thriller-comedy together, and suggest it’s also one of the best allegories for marriage I’ve ever seen.

Who ARE those people? They’re Every Married Couple … after the honeymoon’s over.

They’re not “happily” married – the movie begins with them in a marriage therapist’s office – but married they are, and the more you’ve been married, the more you’ll laugh your head off, so you don’t bang it against a wall at the impossible sly comedy/thriller, noisy action imbroglio a marriage can be. The young may take it at face value. The older and wiser will see the wolf’s head under Granny’s nightie – the fight and struggle that’s part of marriage, and part of life.

In the shrink’s office, John typically speaks for the two of them, saying they’ve been married 5 years. Jane corrects that it’s “6”. The script is peppered with the sort of bickering and snipes you hear from the disgruntled, long-married couples you unfortunately find yourself seated with on a cruise. Jane accidentally sticks a knife in John’s leg and he says, “We’ll talk about this later.” Jane mouths off to him in front of their hostage, and John growls, “It would be better not to demean me in front of the hostage.”

They are assassins, and shortly after the film begins, they discover they’re going to have to kill each other in order to survive. Imagine that. As Eddie, one of the marvelous side characters, says, in bolstering John to do the deed:

Eddie: "This broad is not your wife; she's the enemy.
John: "She tried to kill me."
Eddie: "They all try to kill you. Slowly, painfully, cripplingly. How you going to handle it?"

Who ARE these people? An equally-matched married couple going through some of the predictable stages of married life. They remember when they met (You looked like Christmas morning, he tells her), while living separate lives under the same roof, their marriage a power-struggle at a hopeless impasse, their communication, surly silence punctuated by nit-picking and pot shots.

When they dance the tango (the dance that symbolizes marriage if ever there was one), he slams her up against a wall, and she asks, “Satisfied?” “Not for years,” he replies. (See trailer here.) Then he hurls his knife into the wall.

You will roar, if you have your sense of humor about you, at his reaction when she tells him to turn left. Even when his life depends upon it, he won’t be told what to do. Shortly thereafter they botch up, apologize simultaneously and infuriate themselves further. Neither can win. They can’t quit the contest. “It’s my fault.” “No, it’s MY fault.”

Ultimately, they have to join forces in order to survive and at this point, they start leveling with each other and get honest. They get at what’s really bugging them, which isn’t the bad meals she doesn’t cook; it’s the lies and half-lies. Jane admits the person who showed up at the wedding to give her away wasn’t her father but a paid actor. John admits to having been married before.

Incredulous, Jane, the professional assassin, asks, “What’s her name and social security number?” and John replies, “No, you’re not going to kill her.”

They work through their relationship problems the way we all have to – dodging bullets and crawling around in a speeding car. How many “discussions” have you had with your partner while dodging bullets from in-laws, taking his/her call at work at the worst possible time, cleaning toilets, paying bills, and fighting traffic, while chasing kids and dogs around the house?

This movie is delightfully cathartic – allowing us to recognize, purge and perhaps purify feelings we’re aware of, just barely aware of, or denying. Like “Fatal Attraction,” or “The Lion in Winter,” we experience vicariously the raw emotions that come with intense, intimate relationships -- the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As Harriet Lerner writes in “The Dance of Connection,” we see how “relentless focusing on an issue that only gets worse feels less like a real sharing of feelings and more like a primitive flow of anxiety going from one person to the other.”

“We need to talk,” he says after she’s tried to run him over with the car, or shoot him, it’s hard to tell there’s so much going on.

Intensity and reactivity feed on each other in a closed-loop as we experience love, passion, aggression, and smoldering fury from a battle we would have to lose, in order to win. It’s satisfying, at the symbolic level, to see John kicking her a couple of times for good measure, and then, when they finally fall to the ground, exhausted, Jane takes one more punch. Most of us are too controlled to even consider this. However, we find other ways.

“Everyone gets married for the wrong reason,” a marriage therapist friend of mine once said, “and to the wrong person. And then you deal with it.” The question is, what do you do when the romance of the century has turned into a negotiated cease-fire?

Like many married couples, Mr. and Mrs. Smith feel it would just be easier to go their separate ways. Then, because it’s a fairytale, of the Grimm sort, danger comes their way and unites them. They turn and fight the world instead of fighting each other, in order to stay alive. In the process, they get real with one another; that is, they start feeling again. We are our emotions, and you can’t stuff one down without stuffing them all down.

The marvelously superficial and one-dimensional suburbanite characters Mr. and Mrs. Smith meet on their journey are a great foil for this authenticity. One of the best scenes is when John is running around the exterior of the house fighting for his life, and the dog-walking clueless neighbor tells him his car is blocking the sidewalk. Got a neighbor like this? A boss? A friend?

It’s a story of boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love and get married. 5 years later (or six) the lies and unresolved conflicts have killed the relationship, and are then played out externally, as Mr. and Mrs. Smith try to kill one another. In this case, literally.

Can love survive? If so, what does it take? Be prepared for a little myth, a little allegory, as our hero and heroine shed some light on human nature, and those two odd bedfellows, love and aggression, that are part of our relationships, and part of life.

"Ever feel like you want to kill your partner over the littlest thing at one moment and you can't live without them the next?" wrote Mandy on yahoo movies. Ever want to take out their former spouse?

It's all about knowing and managing emotions. Call for EQ coaching - 210-496-0678, or .

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