Pitt-Jolie Are No Nick and Nora

Brad Pitt is seriously buff. Angelina Jolie is seriously trashy. And Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the movie famous for the way it broke up his marriage to Jennifer Aniston and launched the Pitt-Jolie team on one of the dopiest and most gimmicky P.R.-fueled love affairs since Kermit met Miss Piggy, is seriously preposterous.

In a tired and ridiculous excuse for a plot, they play John and Jane Smith, two secret assassins working for rival organizations who meet cute between machine-gun fire in Bogotá, tie the knot and then settle down in a New York suburb to play house. Neither one knows what the other one does. She’s got a state-of-the-art artillery armory hidden in the kitchen oven. He’s got millions stashed in the tool shed. Stretching credulity to the breaking point, director Doug Liman and overripe screenwriter Simon Kinberg expect the audience to believe, on simple faith, that Mrs. Smith thinks her hunky husband is a construction engineer, although he goes to work every morning in button-down collars, tweed jackets and a symphony of cashmere tailored to caress his abs and six-pack. Mr. Smith thinks his bodacious wife is busy all day adding freshly shelled peas to her paella recipe, although she comes home from an underworld massacre wearing dominatrix drag and can’t boil water. Between dodging bullets and making the bedsprings squeal, they miraculously stick together in an over-decorated house that looks like a model home in suburban hell.

One day, Mr. and Mrs. Smith are assigned the same target and end up firing on each other. Well, it had to happen. They declare war. The rubber band snaps, the jig is up, and the rest of the movie is devoted to the endless ways in which they dedicate themselves to killing each other with butcher knives and James Bond automatics. Of course, there is one problem: Although they have to take each other out, they still care. Cue jokes. Slash, bang. “Any last words?” “The new curtains are hideous.” She blows him down an exploding elevator and he says, “You gave me the shaft.” I dunno-a few folks around me actually chuckled. No explaining what passes for humor today.

By the time Mr. and Mrs. Smith shoot it out in their own home, wrecking the S.U.V.’s, smashing the furniture, knocking holes in the walls and torching the kitchen, it looks like somebody blew up a Ralph Lauren paint store. Beating each other senseless with their bare fists, he sports a small Band-Aid over one sculpted camera-ready cheekbone, and there’s no telling how much of the inflated budget was spent on the pancake to cover up her tattoos. (It goes on with a trowel.) Before they die, the cogs in the wheel shift again. It’s been an awful mistake. Somebody is out to kill them! In one of the most incomprehensible scenes of the decade, they spring a maximum-security prisoner from underneath Manhattan’s Criminal Court building and hold him hostage until he tells them why they’re being targeted by their own agencies. The premise is not without entertainment value, but the execution is so far off the roof that it seems like science fiction. The director is the same Doug Liman who made the demented head-scratcher The Bourne Identity. What? Along with style, sex, violence, action and pretty people who can’t act but look good in the close-ups, you want character development, social relevance and narrative coherence, too?

Wrecking expensive luxury cars like they were shot glasses is what the stars do best. If Nick and Nora Charles were alive today, would they be working as hired killers? If Mr. and Mrs. North were still with us, would they be reduced to the status of heartless preppies with contracts out on each other? Mr. and Mrs. Smith is the New Wave spin on those husband-and-wife crime teams, but the idea backfires. Brad Pitt’s wry trademark sarcasm is familiar stuff, and Angelina Jolie’s artificially swollen bee-stung lips and tweaked nipples do not make up for her stunning uncertainty about how to play an intimate scene convincingly. Her cold assassin has the frayed and bogus charm of a shopping-channel party hostess hawking a new product. She could be selling Revereware. Too much phony allure and contrived sexual chemistry wears thin fast. At any rate, there’s nothing new about husband-wife slaughter tactics; the “till death do us part” bit has already been staged by a number of other actors–Kathleen Turner and Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor, Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner again (she’s got a Ph.D. in marital mayhem) in The War of the Roses, and even J. Lo and Billy Campbell in Enough, to name just six. This one is Bonnie and Clyde meet The Incredibles.

Jumpin’ Jack

It’s sad to watch so many aging bobbysoxers, disc jockeys, worshipers and apologists for Frank Sinatra still mourn over the loss of the man they call the last great singer in history, like he was the world’s last tax exemption. Get over it. Ol’ Blue Eyes has left the room, the building and the planet. But there are a few great male vocalists left, honoring the Sinatra tradition by singing warm and swinging standards from the archives of the American Popular Songbook. One of them is making a rare appearance right now. I’m talking about Jack Jones, at the august Algonquin’s famous Oak Room through June 11. Here is a man who knows all the right changes and all the perfect chords from most of the historic classics ever written, with the intelligence to interpret lyrics in ways that surprise and thrill even the most jaded listener. He can also swing.

I’ve seen and heard him countless times, but this exclusive engagement-his Algonquin debut-is the first time I’ve ever heard him work with the intimacy of a jazz trio in a hushed and reverent room where people actually come to listen. There’s a lot to listen to. Nearing 70, he may not be the glamour boy with the wax tonsils he once was when he acted in movies and played the posh hotel ballrooms to mobs of screaming women standing on their chairs and passing out on the Aubusson carpets. But if he lacks Sinatra’s drama and electricity (not to mention the nervous terror with which he held his audiences hostage, fearing what controversial thing he might do next), he makes up for it with pure musical polish and know-how.

Elegantly sartorial, he loosens his tie and throws off his jacket, tossing it across the grand piano, before launching moodily into a hair-raising juxtaposition of “You’ve Changed” and “Round Midnight” that reduces the room to open-mouthed, closed-eyed ecstasy. His snow-thatched hair may be an unmistakable sign of the passage of time (no Grecian Formula for this comfortable performer, who has lived some and liked it), and his voice is unquestionably huskier (and sometimes hoarser) than it once was, but the Jones boy has forgotten nothing about how to sing. He’s a mint-condition golden oldie, and the younger generation of wannabes could learn a lot about performance artistry by watching him move and opening up their ears. A lot of young singers were packing the room on opening night, so I guess they’re getting the message. Like Vic Damone, Steve Lawrence and Tony Bennett, Mr. Jones is one of the few legitimate teachers left who knows how to wrap his chops around a song and leave it sung for all time.

The show has the kind of loosely constructed “theme” that New York cabaret bookers find obligatory these days-a file of boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl songs that illustrate the ups and downs of a love affair. But this totally unnecessary hook is just a gimmick to tie loose strings together with enough changes of mood, style and tempo to illustrate the various skills and techniques that have turned Mr. Jones into a master of the art of popular singing. Love songs have been his stock in trade for decades, so it isn’t surprising that without the strings and the brass he can still turn Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” into classics of commitment and romantic intimacy. He touches on his own hits, like “Wives and Lovers,” which once enraged feminists but now gets a round of applause when he swipes at Gloria Steinem and vows to keep performing it until he dies, and “I Am a Singer,” which I could do with a lot less of. Most of the time, however, it’s the creamy voice we grew up listening to, enhanced by the kind of life experiences that add range and dimension (four marriages, obvious heartbreaks and a lot of bills). The timbre in Antonio Carlos Jobim’s gorgeous Brazilian bossa nova aria “Useless Landscape” is something you will not hear on the old recordings.

Much of the act is devoted to songs from his last CD, an exquisite tribute to Tony Bennett, who was also in the audience on opening night, smiling with approval. With the excellent West Coast pianist Tom Garvin providing lush chords for him to swing in, it’s amazing how much jazz comes out of Mr. Jones in this relaxed setting. He might not be universally regarded as a jazz singer, but like Mel Tormé, he’s always been rooted in the dark riverbank soul of jazz. On the improvisational mid-section of “Round Midnight,” he uses his voice like a muted trumpet, and on up tunes like Frank Loesser’s “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” he sometimes sings behind the beat, sometimes out front and leading it.

At all times, he says the lyrics, bends the words and finds the emphasis that brings more than ordinary emotion to the wonderful popular songs of our time. He has an astounding control of his instrument-and what a voice it is, rooted in jazz, yet moving beyond it in the tradition of show-business veterans like Sammy Davis Jr. and, yes, even Sinatra. Alas, this eclectic mix of pure emotional beauty and blunt razzle-dazzle can backfire. Listening to the surprises he saves for Stephen Sondheim’s “Not While I’m Around” is worth the trip to the Algonquin. You are ready to go home sated. Then, out of nowhere, near the end of the act, he deserts the thematic material to sing and act out passages from Man of La Mancha, belting out “The Impossible Dream”! This ossified relic may serve the purpose of showing off a singer’s lung power, but it’s the kind of noisy intrusion that would make it the one cut on a CD I’d skip over every time-and if I never hear it again, it will be too soon.

Thrill Me

For something startling, provocative and just a little bit different, head for the York Theatre Co. in the Citicorp building, where people are talking about Thrill Me, a keen production of a new musical about-get ready-the infamous Leopold and Loeb murder case. Still holding gossip-column, scandal-sheet and tabloid addicts enthralled after nine decades, the lurid 1924 crime in which Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold-two handsome, brilliant and wealthy Chicago college students-kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy named Bobby Franks for no reason but to rebel and shock society, defy the law and prove that a perfect murder could be committed without detection. Set to music with book, music and lyrics by Stephen Dolginoff, the story is familiar and the songs are less than memorable, but Thrill Me has tight direction by Michael Rupert and two riveting, perfectly cast performances by Doug Kreeger and Matt Bauer that will keep you spellbound. Mr. Kreeger makes a fine, controlling, calculating and brainy Richard Loeb, the promising law student hooked on the cynical philosophy of Nietzsche who masterminds the plan, and Mr. Bauer is terrific as Nathan Leopold, the sensitive, besotted lover who went along for the ride because he was madly obsessed with his homicidal partner. They drew up a contract and Leopold signed it in blood, promising to do anything Loeb wanted in exchange for sexual favors. “Murder,” declared Loeb, “it’s the only crime worthy of our talents.”

The story has been dramatized often, most notably in Alfred Hitchcock’s dull 1948 suspense film Rope. For highlights of the historic trial summation by Clarence Darrow, who ranted eloquently against the death penalty for 12 hours and saved Leopold and Loeb from the electric chair, you must refer to Orson Welles’ powerful performance as Darrow in the 1959 film Compulsion. But Thrill Me contains some startling revelations. Loeb was supposed to be the strong, domineering half of the lethal duo, but in this production, Leopold is the secret control freak who deliberately left his glasses at the crime scene to ensure their future together in prison, then turned down a plea-bargain deal to stay with his lover for “life plus 99 years.” From the ransom note on the broken typewriter to the parole board in Joliet prison, the clinical details are presented matter-of-factly in songs like “Everybody Wants Richard” and “Keep Your Deal with Me” that you are unlikely to hum on your way out. Still, I like the way they’re performed-not as solos, but melded into the plot, as though the lyrics are spoken dialogue. There’s a lot to admire here, and a lot to learn. Did you know Loeb was stabbed to death in the prison shower, and after 34 years Leopold went free because the state of Illinois needed the bed? I can’t get enough of this stuff, and Thrill Me freezes the blood and keeps you wanting more.