By the Sea (Universal Pictures, R)

by the_sea_75Despite its flaws, I think By the Sea is an indicator that Jolie is headed in the right direction with the writing and directing phase of her career.




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The biggest draw for By the Sea will be its co-stars, husband and wife Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (credited as Angelina Jolie Pitt in the film), who haven’t worked together since Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005. By the Sea is, for better or for worse, a star vehicle for the couple. Though on first glance it promises both stunning visuals and an exciting give-and-take between a highly acclaimed acting team, I can’t imagine anyone actually liking this movie. Pitt and Jolie are charming, watchable performers, but their presence isn’t enough to elevate them out of Jolie’s shortcomings as a filmmaker. Her last film, Unbroken, flounders due to schmaltziness and an overall lack of excitement. Her debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, is unfocused and exhaustive. By the Sea suffers from both of these detriments, although it would be unfair to say that it doesn’t have a handful of really good scenes and visuals.

The movie begins with the arrival of Roland and Vanessa (Pitt and Jolie) at a rustic but still lavish seaside hotel in Europe. They act cold and distant to each other, their relationship seemingly on its last legs. Vanessa is troubled by deep insecurities that result from some unknown trauma and Roland struggles with a lack of communication with his wife as well as his own alcoholism. A young pair of newlyweds (played by Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) check into the room next door for their honeymoon, and a gradual series of interactions between the two couples tests all of them.

There are two major elements butting heads with each other here. The movie clearly identifies itself as a simple, intimate, character-driven drama, and yet the luxurious production design and widely shot landscapes give it the distracting feeling of an epic. Intentionally anachronistic props, such as Pitt’s old-fashioned electric razor or vintage car, set against the backdrop of the Mediterranean Sea and architecture make the film look like a cologne advertisement. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll notice the first half of it has an abundance of static shots of characters looking at things wistfully. Unfortunately, that is a fairly accurate précis of most of the film. There are many scenes where Pitt hangs out at bars and walks around, and Jolie sits in the hotel room looking really sad. Eventually the film gives us some eventful scenes. One in particular involving Roland and Vanessa and a hole in the wall is terrific. But these moments are either not enough to bring the movie out of its lethargy or are clumsily written. Most of the dialogue is painfully on the nose.

Despite its flaws, I think By the Sea is an indicator that Jolie is headed in the right direction with the writing and directing phase of her career. Her two previous films, though they don’t hit the mark, prove that Jolie has all the resources and potential to be a decent director, especially of actors. She has all the experience she would ever need in the industry to make that happen. This film is also a departure from the intense, period-war films that she’s been making so far. It seems to come from a much quieter, meditative, and personal place. If Jolie can hone in on that type of material and make it more taut, focused, and deliberate, then we’re all in for something really good. | Nic Champion

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