Dir. Robert Zemeckis, Script. Steven Knight
Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard
Plot: Two spies make love in a sandstorm whilst also wanting to kill Hitler – but the girl might actually like Hitler…which would be a shame.
Allied will probably have the distinction as the movie that killed Brad Pitt’s marriage as well as any acting ability he may or may not have had before he signed on. On paper, Allied seemed like a solid bet, with a brilliant assortment of on and off-screen talent assembled to pay homage to Casablanca, in a way that a dog will often pay homage to your shoes in the morning. You can probably guess that this didn’t quite work; Allied does have its moments granted, but for the most part the new movie from Robert Zemeckis is a plodding and uneven period romance that midway through pulls a complete one-eighty into a psychological thriller, albeit one with the psychological and thriller elements removed. But who cares? We’re only here to watch two attractive people saunter through beautiful locales wearing dresses designed by an angel-winged Tom Ford, right?
Thing is, most of Allied‘s press has been zoning in on the supposed Pitt-Cotillard tryst that happened on set, and I confess its quite difficult to watch Allied through any other lens. So here I sit, two hours of meandering narrative lying before me, awaiting the steaming hot burning love that the passionate whirlwind romance of the jawline posing as Brad Pitt and the suicidal woman from Inception would obviously provide. After watching this film to its end, I can safely say that the tabloid press know nothing. Pitt and Cotillard have very little chemistry, if not negative chemistry if such a thing can actually exist according to the laws of movie physics. Their romance is as stilted as a Cirque de Soleil performance, although their work is worthy of being filmed and these two’s work less so. Their romance doesn’t have anything setting it up, and when it makes the jump from spies pretending to be married to actually wanting to be married via trying to kill some Nazis it feels especially contrived and forced. They look great at least, so great they can’t possibly be real people: like two Gucci models photoshopped against a green-screen desert.
Cotillard has more meat to chew into, although she’s basically chewing into Quorn: a mysterious resistance spy whose allegiances are what the overlong plot hinges on, Cotillard is such a capable screen presence that she almost transcends the poor dialogue she’s been given. Helping her out is the fact that half of Allied is actually in French, Cotillard’s native language, as if she’d agreed it within her contract so she could chat shit about the film while making it and nobody would know. I’m personally fine with half of a movie being in a foreign language, being a stodgy film critic who you can probably guess says snobby statements like ‘Please, the Romanian New Wave is where its at at the moment if you want affecting personal drama’. But making half of your $85m Hollywood production starring some of the most recognisable actors on the planet French, however admirably risky, is going to alienate audiences after a while. Worse still, this is an hour of French backstory – the real plot of the film i.e. is Cotillard a Nazi double agent or not doesn’t begin until after we see their meeting, which is literally just them swanning about in Casablanca spouting poor dialogue, hallucinating that they are in fact Bogart and Bergman always having Paris when they are in fact Pitt and Cotillard never having my investment – the entire first act is just expensive window-dressing, that feels completely inconsequential and doesn’t really bear any relevance later on, spare the fact that they made out in the desert one time and decided to marry on the strength of that alone.
Also escaping with some dignity is Zemeckis, who actually keeps a decent hold on the proceedings even with the colossal shift towards the middle of the film. Zemeckis is one of the most experienced and beloved directors around, having directed a beloved classic (Back To The Future), a Best Picture winner (Forrest Gump) and scared the literal daylights out of the children of the world (The Polar Express) – Allied is nowhere near as memorable a film, but his experience comes through. There’s a few scenes during Allied that are well constructed, and the action sequences (that are unfortunately few and far between because of how painfully slow Allied can be) are actually pretty good – they’re surprisingly raw and well shot by cinematographer Don Burgess. Good words also need to be said about the look of this movie: I know I’ve discarded Allied for being one of those movies where hot people swan about in cool costumes but let’s face it, the costumes and the production design are really first-rate. Pitt and Cotillard look fantastic as a spy couple (until such time as they open their mouths and are forced to spew the plot) and some of the expensive digital effects are used for rather odd reasons. Now I know filmmakers have a fear of regressing into cliche, but sometimes the need for being ‘dynamic’ goes a bit too far: take Pitt and Cotillard’s first love-making session, taking place in the midst of a spinning car and shot with a spinning camera, whilst a biblical sandstorm billows over the top. A sandstorm. And in case you hadn’t quite caught the fact that Allied descends into pure and shameless melodrama, the giving birth scene in the middle of a hospital being battered by a Nazi air raid should do the trick.
And yet, through all these unbelievably over-the-top scenes, Brad Pitt holds course. For Mr. Pitt has taken a new direction in his portrayal of the Canadian spy, Max Vatan. Brad Pitt has put in several charismatic performances over the years, and perhaps feeling that he might be becoming typecast has elected to change it up completely, by bleeding his character dry of anything even remotely resembling human emotion, or any idiosyncrasy related to humanity in general. Brad Pitt is awful in this film, bad enough to the point where he alone ruins the entire thing as if on a personal crusade; his character is flat as a pancake mown down by a truck, and his expression is so empty that empty is too descriptive a word to get the idea across of what its actually like. But even as Brad commits the sin of being mind-numbingly dull, he’s not done there: his character makes a very good claim for being one of the dumbest protagonists ever to exist. After the hour-long foreign language film prologue, in which Pitt spends most of his time doing relatively stupid things anyway, Allied decides to finally commence with the plot, as Pitt is forced to investigate and thusly entertain the possibility that his wife might actually have been a German spy all along, and her devotion to lebensraum would’ve been so unwaveringly strong that she would have not only slept with the enemy, but given birth for Goebbels. Despite the frequent instructions of his army friends and colleagues not to do his own investigating, Pitt does so anyway, implying that he doesn’t trust his wife enough to believe what she’s told him all of the time she’s known him, and jeopardising not only his and his family’s lives, but actively ending some others. Add that to a performance about as stirring as uncooked cake mixture with the fact that Pitt’s character is so totally unlikeable that there are several moments I was desperately rooting for the Nazis to shoot him point blank and leave his dead-but-possibly-more-alive-than-before corpse in a ditch somewhere, and you are left with a performance that is not only a blot on Pitt’s copybook, but possibly the worst performance he has put to film.
The script isn’t a help either, with jarring dialogue and a far-too-leisurely pace that takes you out of the movie more than it involves you within it. The fact Allied‘s script is a mess is even more surprising when you realise its come from the pen of Steven Knight, the talented director-writer behind the extremely underrated Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The main issue is that the entire thing is structurally off: the prologue that gives numerous handjobs to classic Hollywood romance films is absolutely nothing like the second and third act of the film, and when Knight tries to second-guess you by bringing up things from that opening, you have to travel back up the rabbit hole of unmotivated clutter for about an hour until you get back there, only to have to regurgitate all of it back out again, kind of like what having food poisoning is like. What is more annoying about this is that a few rewrites could have made this script a lot tighter, and it would have stopped what is a relatively good psychological thriller premise’s effect being spoiled and basically nullified by the backstory.
Allied is a movie that struggles to decide where it wants to go, and so in the end it decides to try to be both half-heartedly and desperately hopes that the audience doesn’t catch on – however, they always do. At 124 minutes, the film’s quite a grind as well, and if you have trouble believing the on screen relationship between Pitt and Cotillard as much as I did then you’re going to spend quite a fair bit of the movie thinking about what you could have been doing instead, like seeing your significant other, or just having fun – you know, stuff Brad Pitt could have been doing instead of making a movie that may very well go down as the worst performance of his entire career. He really is just an attractive thing with no sentience in this movie: if you like watching people be bereft of absolutely everything that makes somebody human then watching mannequin challenges on YouTube are a much cheaper and shorter medium by which to indulge your passion. The fact that Allied and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, two films about spies who fall in love and then mistrust one another, will now act as bookends to one of the world’s most famous marriages feels rather apt: what began as disposable and fun has now turned into a period of time you’d rather want back.