You have to think the last thing Paramount Pictures and director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future trilogy, Cast Away) wanted upon the release of Allied was a tabloid scandal involving the most famous couple in Hollywood (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie) that included a rumored affair with Pitt’s Allied co-star Marion Cotillard, in another film with Pitt starring as as master spy alongside his master spy wife.
Yes, if the situation sounds familiar it’s because it’s almost identical to the situation surrounding Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the spy vs. spy action comedy that ended Pitt’s marriage to Jennifer Aniston.
But as you watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the chemistry between Jolie and Pitt is obvious and you can at least find yourself saying “of course”, which in turn made Mr. and Mrs. Smith a surprisingly clever if not predictable action comedy romp. Allied is not Mr. & Mrs. Smith and the comparisons should end. They won’t, unfortunately.
With similar rumors and questions around Pitt and Cotillard’s performances on screen this time around, your mind wanders a bit during their encounters on Casablanca rooftops and eventually in their own home. The relationship (and more to the point, Pitt’s wooden, distracted acting) leaves much to be desired but it somehow still doesn’t ruin the film. That’s a credit to Zemeckis as a master of his craft and to a straightforward story that throws in a couple of twists and turns but is wrapped up acceptably in the end.
The film opens with Pitt’s Canadian intelligence officer airdropped into French Morocco where he meets up with a French asset who has already been posing as his wife in order to gain access to both the social circles and high Nazi command. Scenes where a Nazi officer quizzes Pitt, posing as a French archeologist, were better executed in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — but again, Zemeckis still frames these scenes with enough tension to keep you interested.
Their mission is to pose as husband and wife convincingly just long enough to assassinate the German ambassador. They trade spy craft while testing each other both emotionally and strategically and these are the best scenes that play themselves out, again despite Pitt being disinterested, disgraced or simply unable to deliver the dialogue. Is what they feel real or an elaborate ruse that comes with the job?
This becomes the arc of the film as after they are married and birth a daughter in the middle of a German air raid on London and later when intelligence surfaces that Cotillard’s Marianne Beauséjour may actually be a German imposter. Is Pitt’s Max Vatan simply being tested for a higher command or has his wife, who taught him everything about how to make a staged marriage seem convincing, the true enemy? Vatan dangerously ignores orders to find out the truth and it’s these conflicting emotions that Pitt never quite seems to grasp.
I kept asking if this was the character he’s created — a stiff confused rube — or if this truly was one of Pitt’s worst performances in years (perhaps since Troy). He just never seems all that interested in the proceedings, as opposed to Cotillard who seems to be relishing the difficult nuances of her character. Pitt often has the look of his bewildered Chad Feldheimer from Burn After Reading, but he’s got none of that charm. His line delivery can best be compared to the overdramatic grumbles of the doctor he impersonated to pull off the heist in Ocean’s Eleven. He comes off as preoccupied and it’s anyone’s guess as to why, onscreen or off.
When he’s approached by British intelligence about the possible true identity of his wife, lover and mother of his child, I wanted Pitt to go full Detective Mills (“What’s in the box?!”) or show some semblance of outrage. He barely manages to toss a chair without making it very convincing.
All that seems to play a second hand, however, not to how Pitt and Cotillard act, but to how they look, and the film is unabashed about that. Allied is gorgeous to look at, from the costumes to the cinematography. It’s no accident the film opens in Casablanca. Allied is a throwback and an homage to spy noir and it’s not ashamed to admit it. Pitt and Cotillard are both dressed straight out of a Ralph Lauren catalog. Sunsets and sand dunes are oversaturated. The love scene in the middle of a sand storm is blatantly heavy handed but that’s the entire point.
Zemeckis knows this genre and much like Spielberg does with every film, is attempting to test his own hand at it (Allied in truth is much more Bridge of Spies than Mr. and Mrs. Smith). He pulled off Hitchcock with fairly relative ease with What Lies Beneath (Allied succeeds in its ending where that film failed) and here he’s clearly channeling Michael Curtiz and Arthur Edeson.
A film that looks this good, stays on pace and wraps up almost exactly the way it should doesn’t deserve the tabloid association that comes with it, but unfortunately it’s not going to escape it, especially when one of the major leads looks and acts like it’s all he himself can think about.