Donald Glover’s ‘Mr. & Mrs. Smith’ Is a Sharp and Kinetic Take on Millennial Romance
Another famous film is getting revamped for streaming as a pricey series, but this time it’s a winning combination. Amazon’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is a sharp update that fuses chemistry with a unique take on relationships in our time. The original 2005 movie was a glossy slice of popcorn fun best known for bringing together Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt — on and off the screen. It almost had a 1950s comedy spirit while serving as a metaphor for the idea that love is war, especially when a marriage is threatening to crumble. Now, 19 years later, it is the turn for a new kind of couple that represents adulting millennials. Donald Glover and Maya Erskine are the new Smiths, stumbling into attraction while counting their blessings for having steady jobs.
The season opens with a spy couple played by Alexander Skarsgård and Eiza Gonzalez being mysteriously assassinated outside of a nice cottage. We then meet their replacements, Jane Smith (Erskine) and John Smith (Glover). They have been assigned the task of posing as husband and wife, residing in a plush home where new missions are delivered via a computer system. Although they are aware this is role playing, these skilled operatives consciously try to avoid becoming romantically entangled. Early missions involve delivering a bomb cake and drugging a rich target (John Turturro). But as both spies get to know each other, an attraction subtly builds. Questions arise like, should they have sex in order to truly make the façade believable? Temptation in the home becomes as intense as the threats they face outside.
The charm of the ’05 movie was in its cheerful mocking of marriage themes like trust. Jolie and Pitt’s Smiths are unaware each is an assassin until they are assigned to kill one another. The screenplay was ludicrous but worked because of the sheer chemistry between two of Hollywood’s biggest actors. Erskine and Glover are both in on the truth, so the writing takes fresh avenues. This series stands on its own as a stylish, involving production. Created by Donald Glover and Francesca Sloane, the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” team also includes several others from his acclaimed “Atlanta” show on FX, such as director Hiro Murai and brother Stephen Glover. They shame other Amazon extravaganzas by nicely balancing comedy and character study. The pilot is the equivalent of a blind date, with John and Jane spending time sitting in parks and cafes while following a woman with a mysterious package they need to acquire. Conversations turn into micro revelations about their likes and habits. John is genuinely shocked but intrigued when Jane reveals she had lunch with a pedophile as a kid during an outing, before dashing off to follow their target.
More keenly, this is a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” based on the mindset of a millennial audience. These spies don’t indulge in clichéd discussions about leaving piles of corpses behind. John is clearly haunted by having killed people in Afghanistan while serving as a soldier. Jane talks about being rejected by the CIA the way anyone would mention that good job they lost the opportunity to land. Each new adventure featuring a slew of targets and characters also reveals or says more about the main couple. Sharon Horgan and Billy Campbell play a couple the Smiths have to spy on, creating a mirror situation that heightens their own tensions. Other targets, some quirky and zany, are played by Parker Posey, Wagner Moura and Sarah Paulson. Paul Dano is a subdued delight as the “hot neighbor” who Jane takes a liking to, which at first reveals John’s jealous side. By the half-way point of season one, they also go through the hard trial of first fights and learning to say sorry.
Another great highlight is how “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” handles action. There are the expected explosions and chases, but pulled off with a particular ruggedness and grounded feel. A chase down an alley with fence jumps leaves the couple exhausted, while a punch to the face really does hurt and cracks bone. Yet, it’s all background for an engaging story about two people getting closer. Glover and Erskine have been masterful as outcasts in “Atlanta” and “Pen15,” here they bring that same tone to an espionage caper. During their interviews for the operation, they have no qualms admitting solitude is not an issue. Jane, in particular, welcomes the prospect of cutting ties with her relatives. “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” is about two millennial adults learning to love each other through gunfire, while being totally relatable in how it all begins, with what feels like a high-paying gig. That’s how we find companionship these days, through the hustle of having to get by.
“Mr. & Mrs. Smith” season one begins streaming Feb. 2 on Amazon Prime Video.