In 1999's Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman engaged in a fascinating filmmaking experiment. By offering the carefully constructed narrative of their real-life marriage to director Stanley Kubrick and all his twisted whims, the couple deftly exploited public curiosity for the purposes of high, complicated art. A large chunk of moviegoers may have gone into the drama expecting a glimpse into the bedroom antics of Hollywood's most powerful couple, but they left with more questions than answers – as well as a master class in psycho-sexual symbolism and cinematic debauchery. (And a few neat ideas for their next orgy.)
What seemed on paper to be a classic vanity project turned out to be anything but – partly due to Cruise and Kidman's unwavering courage when it came to flaying the corpse of their marriage, but also thanks to Kubrick, whose final film is that rare example of a director and cast playing on the exact same level, all working toward a complex, messy and enthralling end game.
Not many marquee-worthy couples have attempted the same trick since, unless you think Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez's Jersey Girl is a searing exploration of the complexities and depths of tri-state-area love (please don't).
Yet here comes By the Sea, a film starring the industry's latest power couple and one practically begging to be dissected not only as a piece of cinema, but as an exposé into the presumably steamy and scintillating lives of everyone's favourite beautiful people. Written, directed, produced and starring Angelina Jolie Pitt (she formally adopts her husband's last name in the credits), the 1970s-set drama focuses on the troubled marriage of an author (Brad Pitt) and his ex-dancer wife, Vanessa, as they vacation in picturesque Malta. But this is no Eyes Wide Shut – it's barely Jersey Girl.
The film marks the first time the couple have shared the screen since 2005's Mr. & Mrs. Smith, the action-comedy on whose set they began their relationship, and whose plot required them to inhabit another miserable marriage, though one with ready access to machine guns. By the Sea's version of marital strife is far less fun: Pitt's alcoholic writer stumbles around the gorgeous scenery, begging his wife to open up to him, dammit, while Jolie Pitt's depressed cipher stares off into the distance, occasionally picking up a magazine or cigarette to pass the time. This routine continues for two of the more languid hours you'll ever spend inside a theatre, only punctuated by the pair's voyeuristic glimpses at the young newlywed couple staying in the next room.
Unsurprisingly, Jolie Pitt has said in interviews that the film's rocky marriage has nothing to do with her own, and I believe her. After all, the couple here is far too boring to ever make a dent in the real world. The Pitts are engaging, riveting actors who make bold choices both on and off the screen, not miserabilists who drink, pout and insult each other all day long.
To her credit, Jolie Pitt is clearly not aiming for the blockbuster crowd that lined up for Mr. & Mrs. Smith. By the Sea is structured as an Éric Rohmer-ish character study with a Michelangelo Antonioni lens: broken people wandering around gorgeous surroundings, simply trying to make sense of it all. If those people happen to be played by the movie world's most attractive denizens, then there's no problem with that.
What is unacceptable, though, and what the Pitts failed to realize during production, is that there is more to those beloved European art-house films than pretty scenery and stylish wardrobes. Relatable characters, an emotional centre, some sort of catharsis – all those crucial elements are missing here, replaced by lots of closeups of Jolie Pitt's (admittedly captivating) eyes and many, many shots of the beautiful coastline. Jolie Pitt has proved to be a skillful director with Unbroken and In the Land of Blood and Honey, but here she too often mistakes stillness for profundity, and beauty for depth.
"Well, that was painful," Pitt's character says after spending a stilted dinner with the lovebirds next door. I hear you, Brad.