Yet By the Sea is deeply personal. The escapade starts with acknowledgement that the director and her husband star are cut from marble; most of the film’s first half hour intercuts picturesque shots of linen-draped Brad sipping whiskey and Angelina sunbathing against blue water. A hot French couple (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupaud) moving into the room next door provokes Roland and Vanessa. It’s the old Hollywood tale: out with the old, in with the ingenue. An uncovered peephole to the younger pair’s room turns the neighbors into aroused spies. Jolie Pitt is the woman who gushed about ravenous sex to Barbara Walters. Would we be surprised to learn her and Brad enjoy a good porn once in awhile? Watching two slinky Parisians screw is the rare moment when By the Sea lightens up, cranks up the heat, and abrades the melodrama.
Jolie Pitt takes it a step further. Like a pointillist painting, By the Sea’s plot twist are dots with lines tracing back to her own timeline. The way Vanessa wallows in a sense of incompleteness, the way Jolie Pitt lingers upon her own reconstructed, bare breasts, traces back to her preventative double mastectomy in 2013, and the follow-up removal of her ovaries two years later. There’s no guessing; the a-ha moment comes when a book cover reveals Roland’s surname: Bertrand, the maiden name of Jolie Pitt’s late mother, who died from cancer and inspired the actress to go under the knife. Famous people resist such blatancy. By the Sea puts it all out there.
What Jolie Pitt can’t do is wrangle it all. The one thing the director and her husband aren’t aware of how mega-fame dilutes the riskiest intentions. This wasn’t a problem in their first team-up, 2005's Mr. and Mrs. Smith. In the assassin-vs.-assassin showdown, a steamy, illicit chemistry amplified action. Jolie Pitt wrote By the Sea to be raw, but really, it’s just serious. The pair can’t be themselves, so they play types. They’re unsure how normal people function in existential situations, so they gamble on 100 years of movies to do the talking. They don’t make every necessary sacrifice to express this harrowing, relatable life experience. They’re public figures with public reputations to uphold. Being enigmatic makes them bankable, often electric actors. You don’t play Maleficent when people know the real you.
The worst decision in By the Sea is casting, yet it’s hard to fault the Pitts. The Hollywood machine leaves little room for passion projects. The duo used A-list star power to realize a movie no studio executive would ever willingly release. They wanted to test themselves. They’ll inevitably take a beating for it -- expect By the Sea to be a major (and lazy) Razzies contender. The film earns an “A” for ambition. But Jolie Pitt’s expresses herself on a sliding scale. “We are two very human, flawed people. And I think that’s a good thing to show,” she told the New York Times of her experience shooting the film. Flawed, but not flawed enough. That’s what the tabloid life promises.
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Matt Patches is Thrillist’s Entertainment Editor. He previously wrote for Grantland, Esquire.com, Vulture, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Guardian. He believes the Gone in 60 Seconds remake is secretly one of Angelina Jolie Pitt's best performances. Yell at him about it on Twitter @misterpatches.