You may think that Angelina Jolie Pitt saying she wants to make a movie that involves her and her husband (some guy named Brad) repeatedly watching other beautiful people have sex would have studio executives popping corks and going on yearlong vacations, assuming that “Have a picnic next to the peephole in the wall” will become the new “Netflix and chill.”
Yet “By the Sea,” written and directed by Her Royal Tabloid Highness Who Isn’t a Kardashian, opens Friday in a grand total of just 10 theaters. It’s partly because two of the biggest movie stars on the planet (last seen together in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”) aren’t that bankable when not kicking ass or robbing casinos, and partly because the film is a slow, 1970s-set drama about a floundering marriage—which isn’t as snazzy of a night out as, say, a sci-fi comedy called “The Martian.” As Roland and Vanessa, Pitt and Jolie Pitt look like celebrities, donning fancy hats and driving a convertible along a French cliff on their way to a remote hotel. “Just wanted to get away from it all,” Roland claims, but it’s obvious there’s something these two, together but distant, aren’t discussing. “Have a nice day,” he tells her. “I won’t,” she says. “I know! Love you!” he answers sarcastically. “I know,” she says. How fortunate that they discover a hole in their room’s wall, chipping away at the barrier between this long-married couple as they watch newlyweds (Melvil Poupaud and Melanie Laurent, Pitt’s “Inglourious Basterds” co-star) make the most of their honeymoon private time.
Cast differently, this movie might also feel different. Things change when long-term love is the Pitts. In some ways “By the Sea” marks a safe, sensual counterpart to “Eyes Wide Shut,” Stanley Kubrick’s far more challenging and strange descent into monogamy and sexual exploration. More than in her other, likewise underwhelming directorial efforts (“In the Land of Blood and Honey,” “Unbroken”), Jolie Pitt establishes control over moments and the spectrum of intimacy. The script’s clunky, but the mood’s right.
Unfortunately, the ultimate reveal of what drives these characters’ sorrow oversimplifies an open-ended, almost “Before Midnight”-esque crisis into something more specific but less profound. The terrible, contrived ending undermines anything that kind of worked before, leaving traces of a condescending message about how the elite hurt too. Or maybe it’s a meta commentary meant to show that a voyeuristic peek into this marriage isn’t as interesting as it may seem, and people should leave them alone.
Showing in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St. 773-248-7759)
Don't bother. 2 stars (out of four)
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